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California Court of Appeal: Trial Court’s Dismissal of Charge Based on Express Statement of ‘Insufficient Evidence’ Is Equivalent to Acquittal for § 1170.95 Resentencing

by Douglas Ankney

The Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District, affirmed the finding of a superior court in a § 1170.95 proceeding that the trial court’s dismissal of a charge for insufficient evidence under the facts of this case is the equivalent of an acquittal. (Note: All statutory references are to the California Penal Code.)

Danny Hampton was tried by jury on charges that included murder, robbery, and a robbery-murder special circumstance allegation. At trial, the evidence showed Hampton and his codefendants planned to rob Hampton’s marijuana dealer, Larry Elliott. Hampton was not armed. During the robbery, Hampton ran away from the crime scene carrying a bucket containing marijuana. While Hampton was running, his codefendants shot and killed Elliott.

At the close of evidence, Hampton moved to dismiss the special-circumstance allegation under § 1118.1. The trial court denied the motion stating: “[T]he evidence presents that [defendant] was involved in a discussion with his confederates and that guns were essentially brought out during that discussion, and that [defendant] actually handled one of those guns in advance of going to Mr. Elliott’s home, and further discussion was that they may not leave any witnesses, there is at least a pretty strong implication from those set of facts that, in fact, the person is acting in reckless disregard.”

After two days of deliberations, the jury reached guilty verdicts as to the murder and robbery allegations but deadlocked six to six on the special circumstance allegation. The trial court declared a mistrial as to the special-circumstance allegation. After the trial court sentenced Hampton to an aggregate term of 33 years to life based on the jury’s verdict, the People stated: “With respect to the special circumstances charge that the Court had declared a mistrial on ... the People would move to dismiss that for insufficient evidence.” The trial court answered: “All right. The special circumstance charge will be dismissed for insufficient evidence.”

In 2019, Hampton filed a petition for resentencing under § 1170.95, which provides a procedure for those convicted of murder premised on either felony murder or natural and probable consequences theory to petition for relief via retroactive application of Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) (“SB 1437”). At the hearing on the petition, Hampton argued that dismissal of the special-circumstance allegation for insufficient evidence on the People’s motion barred any relitigation of the issue as a violation of double jeopardy. The People countered that, given the trial court’s statement when denying the § 1118.1 motion, it was clear that the trial court did not find the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law; thus, the dismissal was not an acquittal.

In ruling on the petition, the superior court concluded “that the dismissal of that special circumstance for insufficient evidence is equivalent to a finding that the defendant did not act with reckless indifference. Consequently the People have failed to carry their burden of proving ineligibility.” The court then resentenced Hampton, vacating the murder conviction and sentencing him to seven years on the robberies. The People appealed.

The Court observed that SB 1437 amended “the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder, to ensure that murder liability is not imposed on a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.” If a defendant makes a prima facie showing of eligibility for relief (§ 1170.95(b) & (c)), the court must issue an order to show cause and hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether to vacate the murder conviction and resentence the defendant on any remaining counts (§ 1170.95(d)(1)). At the hearing, the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is ineligible for resentencing. § 1170.95(d)(3).

In the instant case, the Court stated that the only way Hampton could now be convicted of murder was if the prosecution could prove beyond a reasonable doubt Hampton was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life, as described in § 190.2(d). Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, § 3. If there was a prior finding by a court or jury that Hampton did not act with reckless indifference to human life or was not a major participant in the felony, the court is required to vacate the conviction and resentence him. § 1170.95(d)(2).

The dismissal of the special-circumstance allegation is not to be construed as an acquittal for legal insufficiency unless the record clearly indicated the trial court applied the substantial-evidence standard, i.e., the trial court viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and found that no reasonable trier of fact could convict. People v. Hatch, 991 P.2d 165 (Cal. 2000). “Insufficient evidence” is a term of art and, absent a contrary indication, means the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction as a matter of law. Id. If the jury was unable to reach a verdict and the trial court ruled the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain a conviction, the ruling bars retrial even if the ruling was patently erroneous or the court had no statutory authority to make it. Id. Even when a case was wrongly dismissed for insufficient evidence, that dismissal will act as an acquittal. Id.; see Sanabria v. United States, 437 U.S. 54 (1978) (there’s no exception that permits retrial once the defendant has been acquitted regardless of whether the acquittal is egregiously erroneous).

In the instant case, the Court explained that the issue before it is not whether the trial court correctly dismissed the case for insufficient evidence but rather whether the dismissal was, in fact, a determination that there was insufficient evidence as a matter of law.

The Court rejected the People’s invitation to second guess what the trial court meant by the phrase “dismissed for insufficient evidence.” It explained that there are no “magic words” courts must use to establish a dismissal is based upon “insufficient evidence” as a matter of law. However, the Court stated that it didn’t find any authority, nor did the People cite to any, where a court expressly used the term “insufficient evidence” in its dismissal yet the dismissal didn’t constitute an acquittal. See People v. Salgado, 88 Cal. App. 4th 5 (2001); People v. Pedroza, 231 Cal. App. 4th 635 (2014); Mannes v. Gillespie, 967 F.2d 1310 (9th Cir. 1992). Additionally, both the trial court and prosecutor explicitly stated that the mater was being dismissed for “insufficient evidence,” the Court noted.

A trial court is required to state the reasons for dismissal under § 1385, and the court’s stated reason “is the strongest evidence of the grounds for the dismissal.” Mannes. In the present case, the trial court expressly stated that it was dismissing the special circumstance allegation due to “insufficient evidence.” The Court stated that there is no authority that requires the trial court “to state anything more than that to demonstrate its intent to dismiss for insufficiency.” It explained that “we must presume the trial judge intended the phrase to carry its accepted, and precise meaning—that the evidence presented at the trial was not legally sufficient….”

The Court concluded that the trial court did not give, or even suggest, any other reason for dismissal. Because dismissal for insufficient evidence acted as the equivalent of an acquittal of the allegation, the trial court properly granted the petition for resentencing under § 1170.95, the Court ruled.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the order granting Hampton’s § 1170.95 petition. See: People v. Hampton, 74 Cal. App. 5th 1092 (2022). 

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