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California Supreme Court: Prop 47 Requires Dismissal of Conviction Based on a Predicate Felony That Is Later Reduced to a Misdemeanor

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of California ruled that when the felony underlying a conviction for “street terrorism” is later reduced to a misdemeanor, then the street terrorism conviction must be vacated and the charge dismissed.

In 2013, Luis Donicio Valenzuela and his associate Timothy Medina confronted Mannie Ramirez. Valenzuela tried to punch Ramirez and then took Ramirez’s $200 bicycle from him after accusing him of being in a rival gang. Ramirez reported the incident, and the police recovered the bicycle at Valenzuela’s address and arrested him. A jury convicted Valenzuela of felony grand theft and of street terrorism.

While Valenzuela’s case was on appeal, the voters passed Proposition 47 (“Prop. 47” aka, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act) in November 2014, which reduced to a misdemeanor any theft of property that did not exceed $950. Valenzuela petitioned the trial court to resentence him on his felony grand theft conviction after reclassifying it as a misdemeanor and to dismiss his street terrorism conviction because it was predicated on the former felony grand theft conviction. The trial court resentenced the theft conviction as a misdemeanor but refused to dismiss the street terrorism conviction. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court granted Valenzuela’s petition for review.

The Court observed that the crime of street terrorism is governed by California Penal Code § 186.22(a). The essential elements are: (1) active participation in a criminal street gang; (2) knowledge that the gang’s members engage, or have engaged, in a pattern of criminal activity; and (3) the willful promotion, furtherance, or assistance in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang. People v. Albillar, 244 P.3d 1062 (Cal. 2010). Regarding the third element, the Court had previously ruled, “[M]isdemeanor conduct ... cannot constitute ‘felonious criminal conduct’ within the meaning of” this element. People v. Lamas, 169 P.3d 102 (Cal. 2007). Liability under this statute is limited “to those who promote, further, or assist a specific felony committed by gang members and who know of the gang’s pattern of criminal activity.” People v. Castenada, 3 P.3d 278 (Cal. 2000). 

Prop. 47 amended various provisions of the Penal Code and the Health and Safety Code to reclassify as misdemeanors some narcotics and theft offenses. Penal Code § 1170.17(a) and (b) created a procedure whereby persons serving a sentence for a qualifying felony may petition to have the conviction reclassified as a misdemeanor. Penal Code § 1170.18 provides that “[a] felony conviction that is recalled and resentenced ... or designated as a misdemeanor ... shall be considered a misdemeanor for all purposes [except for various possession of firearms offenses].” Prop. 47 “shall be liberally construed to effectuate its purposes.” 

The Supreme Court determined that the trial court correctly reclassified and resentenced the theft charge as a misdemeanor in accord with Prop. 47. The Court also determined that “there is no dispute that the theft of Ramirez’s $200 bicycle—the same conduct that gave rise to defendant’s conviction for grand theft—constituted the felonious criminal conduct involved with his conviction for street terrorism.” The Court concluded the street terrorism conviction must be dismissed pursuant to a Prop. 47 resentencing because the underlying “felonious criminal conduct” element is now absent. As such, the Court concluded that Valenzuela “cannot properly be resentenced for the street terrorism offense. Instead, this conviction must be dismissed in his Proposition 47 resentencing.” 

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: People v. Valenzuela, 7 Cal. 5th 415 (2019). 

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