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California Supreme Court Announces Suspended Execution of Sentence with Probation Imposed Is Not ‘Final’ so New Changes in Law Apply Retroactively on Appeal

by Dale Chappell

In a case that expands the retroactive application of new, more lenient laws passed by the Legislature after a defendant is convicted but is placed on probation with execution of the prison sentence suspended is not yet final where the defendant is still entitled to timely obtain direct review of an order revoking probation and triggering the prison sentence to become effective, the Supreme Court of California announced. Thus, the Court ruled that the new laws apply to such a defendant if their probation is revoked, even years later.

Randolph Esquivel was convicted in 2015 of a felony and was sentenced to five years in prison, with the execution of the sentence suspended. He was placed on probation. When he violated his probation in 2018, he was then sentenced to the five-year prison term. Part of that sentence included an additional one-year term for each of the two prior convictions he had. But before this sentence was imposed, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 136 (2019-2020 Reg. Sess.) (“SB 136”), which removed those one-year additional terms for offenders like Esquivel. The new law applied retroactively to cases not yet final, but the trial court ruled that Esquivel’s case was final before the new law was passed and ordered the five-year prison sentence to begin. He appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, ruling that Esquivel could have appealed his sentence when it was imposed in 2015, despite it being suspended, and therefore his sentence became “final” back then when he failed to appeal. The consequence of this ruling meant that any new laws passed that were favorable to Esquivel such as SB 136 could not be applied to remove those two one-year terms. Esquivel took his case to the California Supreme Court.

The Court explained that the issue in the present case arose because the “ameliorative legislation took effect after the initial time for defendant to challenge his 2015 sentence had elapsed, but before the conclusion of his appeal from the 2018 decision ordering that sentence into effect.” That is, whether McKenzie’s holding also applies to sentences imposed but with execution suspended.

The Court ruled more than 50 years ago, in In re Estrada, 408 P.2d 948 (Cal. 1965), that all new laws are presumed to apply to criminal cases that are not yet final as of the legislation’s effective date—i.e., Estrada’s presumption of retroactivity. More recently, the Court ruled in People v. McKenzie, 459 P.3d 25 (Cal. 2020), that if the defendant is placed on probation with the imposition of sentence suspended, the case is not yet “final” if he is still entitled to obtain direct review of any revocation of probation and imposition of the sentence. The Court observed that the McKenzie Court reasoned that Estrada is not limited to finality of “the judgment of conviction” but is more expansive to encompass the entire “criminal prosecution or proceeding.”

Turning to the present case, the Court concluded that Esquivel’s case was not final under Estrada because the “criminal prosecution or proceeding” against him was not complete on the effective date of SB 136. The Court said that he had not exhausted direct review of the order triggering his prison sentence to take effect, nor had he successfully completed probation.

The Court stated that this case turns on legislative intent and reasoned: “We see no persuasive reason to presume that the Legislature would wish to extend the benefit of ameliorative legislation to suspended-imposition defendants whose probation is revoked (per McKenzie), but not to suspended-execution defendants whose probation is revoked.” Thus, the Court concluded that “legislation ameliorating punishment presumptively applies to suspended execution cases pending on appeal from an order causing a previously imposed sentence to take effect.”

Accordingly, the California Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinon. See: People v. Esquivel, 487 P.3d 974 (Cal. 2021). 

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