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California Court of Appeal Vacates Guilty Plea That Resulted in Legal Fiction

The Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Three, reversed a guilty plea where a trial court approved a plea bargain for human trafficking of a minor for a sex act because it was undisputed that the victim was an adult. The Court held the trial court acted in excess of its jurisdiction.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Devonne Lavert Richardson. He was charged by information with seven counts—the most serious being human trafficking. Richardson came to the attention of law enforcement when the Redwood City Police responded on August 18, 2018, to a call from a concerned citizen about a fight between a man and a woman in a parking lot. The responding officer spoke to the female, who was identified as the Confidential Victim (“CV”). She denied any altercation with the male, there were no signs of injury, and she refused medical care. Because she had no safe place to go, she agreed to be taken to First Chance.

The next morning, the CV told a counselor that she first met Richardson at an Airbnb in Stockton on August 1, 2018. At the time, the CV was 26. Richardson promised that if she left with him he would take care of her financially, and they would eventually find a place to stay. She agreed and they drove to Sacramento.

Once there, they had sex in Richardson’s car. He then told the CV that she now belonged to him. He told her that she “had to walk the blade,” which meant the area in the city where “johns” would go to hire sex workers. He told her that she would have to work as a sex worker to make money, and in return, he would provide a place to stay, food, transportation, and protection.

Richardson also forced the CV to take nude photographs of her to post online. While the CV did not want to work as a prostitute, she did so because she was addicted to methamphetamine. Richardson also had her cell phone, her personal identification, and the naked photos that she feared he would send to the contacts on her phone, which included her parents.

The CV walked the blade for Richardson for a week and had five or six transactions. He kept all the money in each instance. After about a week, the CV left Richardson. She continued to walk the blade until Richardson found her. She went back to him after he apologized and because he had her personal belongings and the photos. They got into a dispute on August 18 after a john failed to show up for an “outfall.” After the CV refused to continue standing on the street corner to wait on the customer, Richardson assaulted her. Police arrived shortly thereafter.

In addition to the human trafficking charge, Richardson was charged with second degree robbery, living and deriving support and maintenance from the earnings of a person known to be a prostitute, unlawfully and by threats of violence persuading and encouraging another person to become a prostitute, and assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily harm.

Although it was undisputed that the CV was an adult at the time of the charged crimes, the prosecution filed an amended information on March 1, 2019, that added count 8, which alleged human trafficking of a minor for a sex act. Pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement, Richardson pleaded guilty to that offense in exchange for dismissal of the seven other counts.

At the change of plea hearing, the trial court accepted the plea. While imposing the statutorily mandated five-year sentence, the trial court stated it was a significant factor that “the victim is under 18” years old. The district attorney immediately clarified, “No, she wasn’t, your honor.” He further explained that the victim was 27 [sic] years old, and the plea was offered “in order to reduce the count from [the] eight-year minimum triad.” Based on that, the court said it was inappropriate to impose probation “given the seriousness of the offense and the impact on the victim.”

Richardson appealed. His appointed appellate counsel filed a “no issue” brief in accord with People v. Wende, 600 P.2d 1071(Cal. 1979). That required the appellate court to act as “a neutral arbitrator” and “as an advocate looking for reversible error.” The Court found the plea was a “legal impossibility” because Richardson “could not have been guilty of trafficking a minor because the victim was indisputably 26 years old.” Since such an issue is not cognizable on appeal, the court treated the appeal as a petition for writ of habeas corpus.

The Court determined that the trial court committed error by accepting “an unauthorized and illegal plea bargain.” While Richardson did not seek to withdraw his plea, the appellate court said its “independent review of the record brings the validity of the plea bargain to the forefront of this appeal.”

The “root of the problem” in the case was that the prosecution should never have offered a plea for human trafficking of a minor, and the trial court should never have accepted it, according to the Court. Human trafficking carries an eight-year mandatory minimum, and human trafficking of a minor carries only a five-year mandatory minimum.

While the prosecution believed eight years was too severe in this case, “the power to prescribe the appropriate punishment for criminal behavior resides exclusively in the Legislature,” wrote the Court, adding: “We do not mean to stifle or discourage creative dispositions in our trial courts, especially where it stems from a desire to reach a fair and equitable result. But we cannot affirm such creativity where it compromises the integrity of the judicial system.” It noted that prison officials and others rely on the charges in dealing with the rehabilitation of an offender, so pleas cannot constitute legal fiction.

Accordingly, the Court reversed with instructions to reinstate the original seven counts and to strike count eight. See: People v. Richardson, 65 Cal. App. 5th 360 (2021). 

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People v. Richardson



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