High Court Changed Some Provisions, Didn’t Kill Any : 3 Years Later, Victims’ Bill of Rights Survives
The victims’ bill of rights, adopted by California voters three years ago, has survived largely intact after a year of crucial decisions in the state Supreme Court.
Provisions on sentencing, searches, prior convictions, self-incrimination and insanity have been narrowed in some cases by the court but none was ruled unconstitutional. Ironically, the far-reaching initiative was a reaction to a series of rulings by the state’s highest court expanding the rights of suspects in criminal cases.
“The net sum is that a lot more people have been in prison and there’s probably a lot tougher evidentiary rules in the courtroom,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown, a Proposition 8 critic.
“The court can interpret Proposition 8 narrowly or broadly, but the genie’s out of the jar,” said George Nicholson, the 1982 Republican candidate for attorney general who was a principal draftsman of the initiative. “The public knows it can play a role in criminal justice.”
The court upheld substantially longer sentences for criminals with felony records and narrowed the insanity defense. Perhaps most importantly, a 4-3 decision in February required state courts to follow U.S. Supreme Court standards on police searches.
That case involved a 16-year-old arrested in Long Beach. Police said they saw him toss a bag into someone else’s pickup truck and the bag contained marijuana.
State Law Allowed Challenge
Under a 1955 California Supreme Court ruling, the youth could have challenged the search. However, the court ruled that Proposition 8 required state courts to follow the standards of the U.S. Supreme Court, which had ruled in 1973 that a defendant who challenges a search must have a right to possess or own the place searched.
That case was “the biggest win for prosecutors in a long, long time,” said Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who opposed Proposition 8 on the ballot but whose office defended it in court.
The ruling wiped out 30 years of decisions in which the court, applying the California Constitution’s independent ban on illegal searches, had gone beyond federal courts in excluding evidence--for example, in surveillance of restrooms, searches of garbage cans, full-body searches after minor arrests, warrantless inspections of bank records and illegal searches producing evidence against a third person.
Those rulings were probably the most important target of the initiative.
Another decision this year indicated that state courts may be free to apply more restrictive standards in admitting confessions and other statements by defendants. But overall, prosecutors have fared well in one of the nation’s most liberal courts.
The court’s record in criminal cases will be at issue next November when Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and five of her six colleagues are on the ballot for yes-or-no votes on new terms of up to 12 years.
No Justice Ever Defeated
No justice has been defeated since the nonpartisan retention system was established in 1934. Conservative groups are campaigning hard, however, against Bird and other court liberals, stressing their frequent reversals of death sentences.
Proposition 8, approved by a 56% vote in June, 1982, contained a dozen provisions across a broad area of criminal law: a repeal of the court’s liberal definition of insanity; an attempt to ban plea-bargaining for serious felonies; a requirement that criminal courts admit all “relevant evidence,” with certain exceptions; longer sentences for repeat offenders; declarations of rights to safe public schools and restitution for crime victims, and authority for victims to testify at parole and sentencing hearings.
The initiative not only forced the California Supreme Court to reconsider many of its own rulings; it also had to interpret language which was often unclear.
For example, the ban on plea-bargaining contained a loophole that allowed bargaining to shift from Superior to Municipal Court. Another provision called for sentence increases for prior juvenile “convictions,” although a juvenile case isn’t a criminal conviction. State appeals courts have refused to impose the increases.
Provisions on using past felony convictions as evidence to attack the credibility of witnesses, and as grounds for sentence increases of five years per conviction, were worded as requirements. However, the initiative did not repeal contradictory state laws.
Judges Have Discretion
The court rejected constitutional challenges to the sentencing provision but ruled that judges may tack on the extra five years per conviction or not, at their discretion.
The insanity case involved Jesse Skinner, who strangled his wife while on a day pass from Camarillo State Hospital. A Superior Court judge ruled that Skinner had known what he was doing but, because of a mental illness, believed that God had commanded him to kill and therefore did not know he was doing wrong.
Before Proposition 8, Skinner would have been ruled insane. The California court in 1978 defined insanity as the substantial lack of ability to understand the nature of the act, to understand that it is wrong or to conform one’s conduct to the law.
As Proposition 8 was drafted, he would have been ruled sane, because the initiative defined insanity as requiring both an inability to understand the nature of an action and an incapacity to distinguish right from wrong.
However, the court ruled that the wording was a drafting error and that Proposition 8 had intended to restore the 1843 M’Naghten test, which defined insanity as either an inability to understand the nature of one’s action or an unawareness that it was wrong. Since Skinner did not know he was doing wrong, he was ruled insane.
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