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California Court of Appeal Announces ‘Plausible Justification’ as Standard for Claiming Entitlement to Discovery Under Racial Justice Act of 2020

by Mark Wilson

In a case of first impression, the Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, vacated a trial court’s denial of a criminal defendant’s discovery request under California’s Racial Justice Act of 2020 and announced the framework for evaluating whether defendants are entitled to discovery of requested materials.

The California Legislature enacted the Racial Justice Act of 2020 (“Act”), effective January 1, 2021, mandating that “the State shall not seek or obtain a criminal conviction or seek, obtain, or impose a sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin.” Cal. Penal Code, § 745(a). Four categories of conduct violate the Act: (1) “the judge, an attorney ... , a law enforcement officer ... , an expert witness, or juror exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin;” (2) during trial, in court and during the proceedings, “the judge, an attorney … , a law enforcement officer … , an expert witness, or juror, used racially discriminatory language about the defendant’s race, ethnicity or national origin, or otherwise exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin, whether or not purposeful;” (3) “the defendant was charged or convicted of a more serious offense than defendants of other races, ethnicities, or national origins who commit similar offenses and are similarly situated, and the evidence establishes that the prosecution more frequently sought or obtained convictions for more serious offenses against people who share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin in the county where the convictions were sought or obtained;” and (4) “a longer or more severe sentence was imposed on the defendant than was imposed on similarly situated individuals convicted of the same offense, and longer or more severe sentences were more frequently imposed for that offense on people that share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin than on defendants of other races, ethnicities, or national origins in the county where the sentence was imposed.” § 745(a)(1)-(4).

The defendant may seek relief from a violation of the Act by filing a motion in the trial court before entry of judgment. The defendant bears the burden of proving a violation of the Act by a preponderance of the evidence. § 745(c). Claimed violations may also be raised post-judgement. § 745(e)(2)(A)-(B).

Upon a prima facie showing of a violation of the Act, the trial court must hold a hearing on the motion. It may appoint an independent expert, and the parties may present statistical evidence, aggregate data, expert testimony, and sworn witness testimony.

At the conclusion of the hearing, “the court shall make findings on the record.” § 745(c). Upon finding a violation of the Act, the court may: declare a mistrial; discharge the jury and empanel a new jury; dismiss enhancements, special circumstances allegations, or other special allegations; or reduce one or more charges. § 745(e)(l)(A)-(C).

“A defendant may file a motion requesting disclosure … of all evidence relevant to a potential violation” of the Act “in the possession or control of the state.” § 745(d). “Upon a showing of good cause, the court shall order the records to be released.”

Solano County prosecutors charged Clemon Young, Jr., with Possession of Ecstasy for Sale in 2019. Based on the evidence presented at his preliminary hearing, Young argued that racial profiling in a traffic stop led to his drug arrest. He also cited publicly available statistics showing that, statewide, Blacks were more likely to be searched during traffic stops than other citizens.

In May 2021, Young filed a motion to “compel disclosure of relevant data” under the Act. He sought the names and case numbers of everyone similarly charged dating back five years; police reports that formed the basis of all such charges; the disposition of each of those cases; the names and case numbers of every individual prosecutor who declined to prosecute dating back five years; the names and case numbers for every sentencing that occurred, dating back five years; and the criminal history of every defendant identified in the preceding requests.

The prosecution opposed the motion, arguing that Young did not make the required good cause showing. The prosecution argued that Young bore the burden of showing that prosecutorial discretion was exercised with intentional and invidious discrimination in his particular case, but he failed to make that showing.

“I’m not comfortable with making this requirement … because there’s so little guidance, and it’s unclear whether or not there needs to be any other information other than simply the race of your client to require it,” the trial court stated in denying Young’s motion. “I’m doing that in part because maybe we’ll get some, maybe this case will lead to us getting some, if you want to appeal my decision in some way. I’m happy to get further guidance because it is not clear to me what simply indicates, where you have the race of the defendant being the only reason we get into a consideration request under” the Act.

Young filed a petition for writ of prohibition, which is authorized to restrain further action by a tribunal that is acting in excess of its jurisdiction. Yet, the California Court of Appeal construed Young’s petition as seeking a writ of mandate, which is authorized to correct an abuse of discretion or to compel the performance of a ministerial duty. See Cal. Civ. Proc. §§ 1085 and 1102.

Young asked the Court of Appeal to vacate the order denying discovery and restrain the trial court from proceeding further until it enters a new and different order granting his discovery motion. Amicus curiae briefs were filed in support of Young’s position by California State Assemblymember Ash Kalra, who sponsored the Act, the State Public Defender, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and the Equal Justice Society.

The Court of Appeal vacated the trial court order. Noting that “the court’s only articulated reason for the denial was that Young’s good cause showing appeared to rest on nothing more than his race,” the appellate court found that “the trial court’s reason for denying Young’s motion was incorrect as a factual matter.” Specifically, “the grounds for the motion went beyond ‘simply’ Young’s race and the Attorney General’s reformulation of that mistaken premise, to the extent his … argument has any bearing on good cause, goes to the breadth and scope of allowable discovery not to whether discovery should be allowed at all.”

“Borrowing from the minimal threshold showing that is required to trigger an obligation to provide so-called Pitchess discovery,” the Court instructed “that Young may claim entitlement to discovery” under the Act “if he makes a plausible case based on specific facts, that any of the four enumerated violations of § 745(a)(1)-(4) could or might have occurred.” See e.g., Pitchess v. Superior Court, 522 P.2d 305 (Cal. 1974).

Even so, the Court explained that satisfying the newly announced plausible justification standard “is merely a threshold consideration,” and the trial court must then “consider and balance a number of (other) factors” related to whether: (1) the requested material is adequately described, (2) the requested material is reasonably available to the Government, (3) production of the requested material would violate confidentiality, privacy rights, or any protected governmental interest, (4) defendant has acted in a timely manner, (5) the time needed to produce the requested information would necessitate an unreasonable delay of defendant’s trial, and (6) production of the requested material would place an unreasonable burden on the Government.

“Whether Young can satisfy this multi-factor test of good cause remains to be seen,” the Court noted. Instead of granting his request to reverse outright and order the grant of his requested discovery, the Court remanded for the trial court to apply “the plausible justification standard we adopt here, taking other pertinent factors into account.”

The Court instructed: “Described broadly, the court’s task will be to engage in a discretionary weighing of the strength of Young’s factual showing, the potential probative value of the information he seeks, and the burdens of gathering the requested ‘records of information’ for disclosure.”

Accordingly, the Court issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the trial court to vacate its order denying Young’s motion for discovery and to conduct a new hearing to reconsider his motion consistent with its opinion. See: Young v. Superior Court, 79 Cal. App. 5th 138 (2022). 

 

 

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