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California Court of Appeal Rules 17-Year Delay in SVP Trial Violated Right to Speedy Trial

by Kevin Bliss

The Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District ruled that the State was responsible in a case where the systemic breakdown of the public defender system delayed the Sexually Violent Predator (“SVP”) hearing for George Vasquez for 17 years, violating his right to a timely trial under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Vasquez was convicted of lewd or lascivious acts on a child younger than 14 years of age in 1995. Before he was released from his 12-year sentence, the State of California (the “People”) filed a petition to commit Vasquez as an SVP under Welfare & Institutions Code § 6600 et seq. The petition was filed on September 7, 2000, and Vasquez was detained in state hospitals, where he languished for 17 years, awaiting trial on the petition.

When the People first petitioned to have him committed, his case was assigned to Deputy Public Defender Michael Suzuki, who represented him for the first seven years. After his departure, six different attorneys were appointed to represent Vasquez. During his nearly 17-year wait for a trial on the petition, dozens of psychological evaluations were conducted, and there were 30 continuances.

Funding for the public defender’s office was arbitrary, and caseloads were constantly being juggled between attorneys. The law requires that a person be taken to trial in a timely fashion, but it also requires adequate representation. The trial court in this instance was trying to strike a balance between the two. But, as the Court of Appeal would later explain, Vasquez had a right to both.

Ellen Coleman was assigned to Vasquez’s case in December 2016 and asked for yet another continuance to prepare. This was just weeks before his January 2017 trial date. Vasquez objected and said “enough is enough.” The judge relieved the public defender’s office as Vasquez’s counsel and assigned it to bar panel attorney Mark Brandt. He filed a motion to dismiss the petition for violation Vasquez’s due process right to a speedy trial.

The trial court granted the motion and ordered Vasquez to be released. The People filed a petition to vacate the order. The Court of Appeal stayed the order pending its review of the petition.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the right to a speedy trial “is an important safeguard to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial….” But what constitutes a speedy trial is not reduced to a specific duration of time. The U.S. Supreme Court explained the right is “amorphous,” “slippery,” and “necessarily relative,” so the Court refused to quantify it “into a specified number of days or months.” Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972). Rather, the Court set forth a balancing test comprised of a four-part inquiry to determine whether the right to a speedy trial was violated: (1) whether delay was uncommonly long, (2) whether the government or defendant is more to blame for the delay, (3) whether the defendant asserted his right, and (4) whether the defendant was prejudiced by the delay. The defendant bears the burden of proof.

The Court of Appeal observed that a SVP proceeding is a civil action, not criminal to which the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial attaches. It then engaged in an extensive review of the leading cases by both the U.S. Supreme Court and California Supreme Court, involving both criminal and civil proceedings. The case law reviewed established that the right to a speedy trial applies to SVP proceedings. Afterward, the Court of Appeal reviewed, in minute detail, each of the delays in Vasquez’s ordeal and the causes of each because the speedy trial analysis is a highly fact-intensive evaluation.

The Court then applied the many balancing tests contained in the lines of cases discussed to the facts in the present case. The length of the delay coupled with the causes led the Court to conclude that Vasquez was denied his due process right to a speedy trial. The Court determined that the unusually long delay was caused by “a systemic breakdown in the public defender system” and must be attributed to the state. It added that the breakdown forced him to choose between a speedy trial and prepared counsel, but “under our Constitution he had a right to both.”

The Court then held that the proper remedy was dismissal of the People’s petition, so “the trial court did not err in granting” it.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal lifted the stay on the trial court’s order that Vasquez be released. See: People v. Superior Court (Vasquez), 27 Cal. App. 5th 36 (2018). 

 

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