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California Court of Appeal: Hearing on Discretionary Resentencing Under §1170.91(b)(1) for U.S. Servicemembers Requires Only That Petition Allege Defendant ‘May’ Be Suffering From a ‘Qualifying Condition’

by Douglas Ankney

The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, ruled that the defendant satisfied the statutory criteria of Cal. Penal Code §1170.91(b)(1) for a hearing on possible resentencing by alleging he “may be suffering from” a qualifying condition, viz., sexual trauma or substance abuse, and that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s petition.

In 1995, a jury convicted Michael John Coleman of 78 sex offenses against a child victim. He was ultimately sentenced to a total of 126 years in prison.

In 2019, he filed a petition pursuant to §1170.91, which permits a current or former member of the U.S. military who “may” be suffering from various service-related conditions (“qualifying conditions”), including sexual trauma and substance abuse, to obtain a new sentencing hearing.  

In the petition, Coleman stated that he had served almost 18 years in the Air Force and the California Air National Guard. He claimed he had two qualifying conditions.

First, Coleman testified he “was a victim of sexual assault and plausibly suffer[ed] from sexual trauma as a result….” He stated that around 1980 a civilian named Greg “started groping and molesting [him] on a couch” in the chapel annex at George Air Force Base. His alleged abuser desisted when another person entered the room.

Second, Coleman testified he “was subjected to narcotics abuse by other airmen and supervisors.” He was once handed “a pipe of marijuana.” And he “encountered numerous sporadic infrequent periods of alcohol abuse during [his] military service from October 1978 to [his] arrest in September 1994.” Coleman testified that “alcohol abuse was almost a routine part of military life,” and he testified, “it is plausible that these issues and trauma in my life can account for [my] flawed decision making.”

The People opposed his petition, countering that:

“(1) Defendant had not offered any documentary evidence that he had served for 18 years;

(2) Defendant had not offered any documentary evidence that the original sentencing court had not considered his military service at sentencing;

(3) Defendant had not offered any corroborating evidence that he suffered from sexual trauma or substance abuse; and

(4) Even if defendant did suffer from sexual trauma or substance abuse, that would not be mitigating in light of the gravity of the crimes.”

The trial court appointed counsel for Coleman. Counsel filed a reply that included the original sentencing-hearing transcript, which revealed the sentencing court had considered neither the sexual trauma nor the substance abuse allegedly resulting from Coleman’s military service as a mitigating factor.

After a hearing, the trial court denied the petition. The judge stated that the defendant was required to allege that: “I am a veteran … I suffer from something related to my service … PTSD, some mental health issue, or a drug dependency … I suffer from some form of diagnosed medical condition. I did not see, I suffer from drug abuse—as a result of what happened…. [I]t’s not military service that’s the factor in mitigation.” Coleman appealed.

The Court of Appeal observed that §1170.91(a) “allows a court imposing a determinate felony sentence to consider the fact that the defendant ‘is, or was, a member of the United States military who may be suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of his or her military service … as a factor in mitigation….’”

In 2018, the statute was amended to provide retrospective relief from a final judgement if: “(A) The circumstance of suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of the person’s military service was not considered as a factor in mitigation at the time of sentencing [and] (B) The person was sentenced prior to January 1, 2015.” §1170.91(b).

“Upon receiving the petition … the court shall determine, at a public hearing … whether the person satisfies the criteria in this subdivision. At that hearing, the prosecution shall have an opportunity to be heard on the petitioner’s eligibility and suitability for resentencing. If the person satisfies the criteria, the court may, in its discretion, resentence the person following a resentencing hearing.” §1170.91(b)(3).

The Court stated that in the instant case it is undisputed that: (1) Coleman was a member of the United States military; (2) the original sentencing court did not consider any sexual trauma or substance abuse that resulted from his military service; and (3) Coleman was sentenced prior to January 1, 2015. Consequently, the Court stated that the determinative issue was whether Coleman satisfactorily showed that he “may be suffering from sexual trauma [or] substance abuse … as a result of his … military service….”

The Court observed that other than the statute itself there’s very little guidance on what’s required to satisfy the initial burden of “may be suffering from” a qualifying condition. The sole case on point cited by the Court was People v. Bonilla-Bray, 49 Cal. App. 5th 234 (2020), in which the defendant served in the Marine Corps and claimed that as a result of his service he suffered from “serious mental health issues and substance abuse addition.” In support of his claim, he submitted extensive military service records and prison mental health records. The People concede that such documentation was sufficient. Id.

According to the Court, Coleman made essentially the same showing except the defendant in Bonilla-Bray produced more documentary evidence.

The Court determined that Coleman’s statement “I was a victim of sexual assault and plausibly suffer from sexual trauma as a result….” Appeared to mean that while the defendant, as a nonexpert, could not offer professional diagnosis, his lay diagnosis was plausible. Coleman’s use of the word “plausibly” did not diminish his otherwise plain statement, the Court said. That statement in conjunction with the fact that Coleman was a convicted child molester, was enough to satisfy §1170.91(b)(1)’s requirement that he allege he “may be suffering from” a qualifying condition, the Court concluded.

The Court explained that the statute simply requires that the petitioner allege that he “may be suffering from” a qualifying condition. § 1170.91(b)(1). There’s no requirement that the petitioner “allege evidentiary facts, such as the symptoms or manifestations of the qualifying condition.” The Court opined that it may be beneficial for the petitioner to supply such evidentiary facts, especially when the People dispute the petitioner’s claims, but there’s no requirement to do so under the statute. Furthermore, the Court stated that the statute “does not require the petitioner to allege that the qualifying condition actually contributed to the commission of the crime.”

In the current case, the trial court denied Coleman’s petition because it determined that the allegations were insufficient, not based on any determination regarding lack of credibility. The Court held that Coleman made a sufficient showing to satisfy the statutory criteria and that the trial court erred in denying his petition. Since the trial court did not reach the People’s arguments that Coleman had not submitted sufficient corroborating evidence or that his claimed sexual trauma and substance abuse were not sufficiently mitigating to call for resentencing, those arguments remained open for litigation.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order denying Coleman’s petition and remanded for a new hearing at which the trial court may, in its discretion, resentence Coleman. See: People v. Coleman, 2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 510 (2021). 

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Related legal case

People v. Coleman

 

 

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