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Name: Satele v. Superior Court (Los Angeles County)
Case #: S248492
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 07/18/2019

The good cause requirement for discovery in habeas corpus proceedings set forth in Penal Code section 1054.9 applies only to physical evidence in possession of the prosecution and law enforcement authorities, not to evidence held by the court. Satele was sentenced to death for two first degree murders. Following his direct appeal, he asked the trial court to release ballistics evidence for expert testing for use in preparing a habeas petition. The items were trial exhibits held by the court clerk. The court denied the request under section 1054.9, which governs discovery in habeas proceedings involving certain judgments, because Satele had failed to show good cause to believe his access to the evidence was reasonably necessary to obtain relief. The Court of Appeal denied Satele’s petition for a writ of mandate. The Supreme Court granted review on its own motion. Held: Petition for writ of mandate granted. In a case involving a conviction of a serious felony or a violent felony resulting in a sentence of 15 years or more, section 1054.9 authorizes discovery of materials, including physical evidence, to facilitate the prosecution of a habeas corpus petition or motion to vacate the judgment. Subdivision (c) defines “discovery materials” as “materials in the possession of the prosecution and law enforcement authorities to which the same defendant would have been entitled at time of trial.” A court may order that the defendant be provided access to physical evidence for the purpose of examination “only upon a showing that there is good cause to believe that access to physical evidence is reasonably necessary to the defendant’s efforts to obtain relief.” (Pen. Code, § 1054.9, subd. (d).) After reviewing case law interpreting section 1054.9 and applying rules of statutory construction, the court concluded the good cause requirement in the statute does not apply to evidence possessed by the court. [Editor’s Note: At the time Satele filed his motion, section 1054.9 applied only to persons sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Effective January 1, 2019, section 1054.9 was amended to apply to cases involving a serious felony or a violent felony resulting in a sentence of 15 years or more. The statute’s expansion applies prospectively only. (Pen. Code, § 1054.9, subd. (j).)]

A trial court has authority to permit an exhibit’s release for examination outside the court and to fashion an order respecting such access; but a good cause requirement to access a court exhibit is inconsistent with the presumption that court records are open for public inspection. Because the good cause requirement in section 1054.9 does not apply to evidence possessed by the court, the Supreme Court also addressed what standards control access to physical evidence retained by the court as a trial exhibit. Under the common law, there exists a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents. Records, including trial exhibits, are presumed to be open for inspection (absent legally required confidentiality). (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 2.550(b)(1), (c).) The trial court has inherent supervisory power over its own records and files and, based on this, has jurisdiction to entertain a request for access to court exhibits. Specifically, the California Rules of Court authorize the court to permit an exhibit’s release for examination outside of a court facility. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 2.400(c).) “In fashioning such an order, the court retains inherent authority to consider such factors as the need for testing, the administrative burden attendant to testing, any conditions necessary to maintain the integrity of the exhibit and chain of custody, as well as other equitable factors.” Here, the trial court erred by denying access to the ballistics evidence based solely on Satele’s failure to establish good cause under section 1054.9, subdivision (d). “While the court has inherent authority to fashion an order respecting such access, its strict application of a good cause requirement is inconsistent with the presumption that such documents are open for inspection.” The Supreme Court vacated the order and remanded for the trial court to exercise its inherent authority to grant access under whatever conditions it deems necessary. [Editor’s Note: Unanimous opinion by Justice Corrigan.]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: