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California Court of Appeal Holds State Must Prove Stolen Car’s Value for Felony Theft of Vehicle Conviction

by Dale Chappell

On January 23, 2018, the Court of Appeal of California, Fifth Appellate District, held that theft of a vehicle worth less than $950 was not a felony but a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code § 10851, which is subject to Proposition 47’s new petty theft provision—Penal Code section 490.2. The Court further held that the prohibition against double jeopardy barred retrial to prove the vehicle’s value.

When D.N., a juvenile, was found to have committed burglary and theft, the State offered no proof that the value of the vehicle was worth more than $950 to trigger the felony charges, yet the juvenile court exercised its discretion and determined the vehicle theft was a felony without this evidence. D.N. appealed.

The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the State had failed to prove the stolen vehicle was worth more than $950, which is a necessary threshold amount to be considered a felony offense under Proposition 47’s new Penal Code § 490.2. The State argued that Vehicle Code § 10851 did not fall under Proposition 47’s changes, and that even if it did, it could retry D.N. to prove the vehicle’s value was more than $950. The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments.

Proposition 47 was approved by voters in 2014. Proposition 47’s new petty theft provision, § 490.2, requires that theft of personal property valued at less than $950 must be charged as a misdemeanor, not a felony. Because a car is considered “property,” the California Supreme Court in People v. Page, 406 P.3d 319 (Cal. 2017), held that Proposition 47 does apply to Vehicle Code § 10851. The Court of Appeal concluded the “Page decision is dispositive of this issue” and therefore ruled that the State’s failure to prove the vehicle’s value at more than $950 prevented the juvenile court from finding that D.N. had committed a felony. 

The Court summarily rejected the State’s argument that it must be allowed to retry D.N. to prove the value of the vehicle. Double jeopardy bars the State from retrying a case based upon insufficient evidence to support the verdict. That is precisely what the State is seeking to do in this case, i.e., retry D.N. because of the insufficiency of evidence proving the value of the stolen vehicle.

Double jeopardy is not implicated in cases of procedural errors such as a change in the law as it stood at the time of trial since the change had not been tried. People v. Figueroa, 20 Cal. App. 4th 65 (1993). However, that is not the situation in this case. Proposition 47 was in effect for nearly two years before D.N. committed her offenses. It became effective in 2014, and D.N. committed her offense in 2016. “The People should have been well aware the value of the stolen vehicle was relevant on whether the offense was a felony,” the Court said. Since the State was on notice two years prior to D.N.’s trial that the value of the stolen vehicle was relevant as to whether the offense was a felony, retrial on the issue of the vehicle’s value would violate double jeopardy.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reduced D.N.’s felony theft of a vehicle adjudication to a misdemeanor. See: In re D.N., 19 Cal. App. 5th 898 (2018).  

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