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Gang Enhancement: California Court Reverses Denial of Motion for New Trial

by Derek Gilna

The Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division One, reversed a trial court’s denial of a defendant’s motion for a new trial on the issue of whether or not a gang enhancement was supported by the evidence.

Defendant Bobby Watts was convicted of murder, and the jury determined that he had “committed the offense for the benefit of, at the direction of, and in association with a criminal street gang” in violation of Cal Pen Code § 186.22, subd. (b)(1)(C). Watts filed a pro se motion asking the trial court to “reweigh the evidence regarding the sufficiency of the evidence to support the gang enhancement” pursuant to Cal Pen Code § 1181.

At the hearing on the motion, Watts reiterated his position on the gang enhancement issue. The trial court insisted that “[i]t’s not for me to reweigh the evidence.” Watts countered that subdivision (6) of the statute expressly directs the trial court to independently reweigh the evidence. The trial court rejected Watts’ argument.

Watts appealed, arguing, among other issues, that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a new trial on the basis that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the gang enhancement allegation. In fact, Watts asserted that the trial court “completely misunderstood the scope of its authority and its duty to independently reweigh the evidence….”

The Court of Appeal agreed with Watts. It explained that “the trial court employed the incorrect test when reviewing Watts’ new trial motion….” The proper standard under subdivision (6) requires the trial court to “independently examine all the evidence to determine whether it is sufficient to prove each required element beyond a reasonable doubt to the judge, who sits, in effect, as a ‘13th juror.’” Porter v. Superior Court, 47 Cal. 4th 125 (2009). As the California Supreme Court instructed in Porter, the grant of a subdivision (6) motion “is the equivalent of a mistrial caused by a hung jury” and “does not bar retrial on double jeopardy grounds.”

A review of the transcript of the motion led the Court of Appeal to conclude that the trial court did not understand the scope of its authority. For instance, the trial court asked Watts, “There was enough for the jury to make the finding, true or false?” This and several similar comments during the motion hearing indicated that the court “misperceived the applicable standard” as that of simply whether there was sufficient evidence, rather than independently reevaluating and weighing all the evidence as required under subdivision (6).

The standard of review upon appeal for denial of a motion for a new trial is abuse of discretion. People v. Knoller, 41 Cal. 4th 139 (2007). According to the California Supreme Court in Knoller, “abuse of discretion arises if the trial court based its decision on impermissible factors or on an incorrect legal standard….”

The Court of Appeal determined that the trial court applied the incorrect legal standard in denying Watts’ motion for a new trial. The transcript of the motion indicated that the trial court “did not independently review the evidence and decide the proper weight to accord it.” As such, it applied the incorrect legal standard.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order with respect to the gang enhancement allegation. It directed the trial court to “conduct a limited rehearing as to whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the jury’s true finding as to this allegation.” See: People v. Watts, 17 Cal. App. 5th 170 (2017). 

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