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California Court of Appeal: Trial Court Abused Discretion Denying Compassionate Release Where Statutory Criteria Are Met

The Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, held on April 30, 2020, that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied a motion for compassionate release based upon considerations other than those set forth in Pen. Code § 1170, subd. (e).

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that Tony Flores Torres was terminally ill and deserved compassionate release, and the Board of Parole Hearings (“Board”) agreed.

With that support, Torres filed his motion in the trial court for compassionate release. The 76-year-old prisoner cited his battle with cancer, which has left him in a wheelchair and unable to move his head. Doctors for the Board confirmed he “does not retain the capacity to commit or influence others to commit criminal acts that endanger the public safety.” They also found he had less than six months to live. Both findings met the criteria for relief.

That was in April 2019. Four months later, the court denied his motion. It found that while Torres met the statutory criteria for compassionate release, as the Board suggested, he didn’t “deserve” release. The judge said he had discretion to deny relief and was doing so because Torres was a “brutal person.” Torres appealed.

The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying compassionate release when Torres met the necessary criteria in the statute. A trial court abuses its discretion when it relies on improper considerations in granting or denying compassionate release. Under Pen. Code § 1170(e)(2), a prisoner is statutorily entitled to compassionate release if he (A) is terminally ill and has less than six months to live, and (B) he doesn’t “pose a threat to public safety.” When these criteria are met, the trial court “shall have the discretion” to grant relief.

The trial court here found the statutory language gave it discretion to deny Torres relief based on findings about his criminal history. But the Court of Appeal disagreed. It said that a trial court doesn’t have “unfettered” discretion to deny compassionate release under § 1170(e), if he qualifies under that statute.

The Court cited statutory interpretation rules, which requires a court to “promote” the purpose of a statute in its application of the law. Here, § 1170(e) was enacted, the Court said, “to save the state money by authorizing the release from prison those inmates who are terminally ill or permanently medically incapacitated and do not pose a threat to public safety.”

In one of its prior decisions, the Court had already ruled that the Board lacked discretion to deny compassionate release when a prisoner qualified under the statute. While the Board “may” recommend compassionate release under § 1170(e), the Court said it “must” do so if he qualifies under the statute. Martinez v. Board of Parole Hearings, 183 Cal. App. 4th 578 (2010). The same is true for trial courts, the Court of Appeal concluded.

The Legislature also decided which prisoners deserve compassionate release, the Court noted. It expressly forbade death sentences, life without parole, and convictions for killing law enforcement officers from compassionate release. “By excluding those inmates from receiving a compassionate release, the Legislature indicated that all other inmates are entitled to one as long as they satisfied section 1170, subdivision (e)’s criteria,” the Court explained. The “inclusion of one thing in a statute implies exclusion of the other.” In re Lance W., 694 P.2d 744 (Cal. 1985).

The Court concluded that “whether the inmate deserves to remain — and die — in prison as punishment for his or her offenses or behavior is improper.” It was undisputed that Torres met the statutory criteria for compassionate release, the Court said. The trial court denying him relief because he did not deserve it was improper, and the court therefore abused its discretion.

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Related legal case

People v. Torres



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