Alejandro was 15 when he tried to steal three bottles of vodka and a bag of potato chips from his neighborhood pharmacy.
Arrested immediately, he admitted his crime in juvenile court and was sentenced to up to three years in juvenile custody for an offense labeled a commercial burglary, a felony.
It took a change in state law, a nimble public defender and an agreeable judge to get Alejandro released early from juvenile hall and back to his family.
Now, after a major court decision last week, Alejandro’s case may establish a precedent assuring juveniles throughout California the same reduced sentences and other treatment provided to adults under Proposition 47 passed by voters in 2014.
The measure, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the California Teachers Assn. but opposed by many prosecutors and police, is an attempt to reduce prison overcrowding and to stress rehabilitation rather than punishment for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft and drug possession.
Alejandro, the only name used in publicly disclosed court documents, had been in juvenile hall for a year when voters went to the polls Nov. 4, 2014. Proposition 47 was adopted with 59% of the vote.
The measure amended state law to reclassify thefts like Alejandro’s, in which the loot was valued at less than $950, as misdemeanor shoplifting, with a maximum sentence of eight months. Several crimes once categorized as felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.
The day after the election, the San Diego County public defender filed a petition in Superior Court asking that Alejandro be released under the new definitions. The judge agreed.
Last week, an appeals court went a step further — over the objections of San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis. The court ruled that Alejandro’s felony should be stricken from his record and his DNA sample removed from the state database.
In a 3-0 vote, a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal sided with the public defender, the ACLU and several public interest law firms in their fight with Dumanis, who opposed Proposition 47 when it was on the ballot and has said it does not apply to juveniles.
To accept Dumanis’ viewpoint means juveniles could serve more time in custody than adults for the same crime, the ACLU and others argued.
The panel’s ruling, issued Thursday, may apply to more than a hundred juvenile offenders in San Diego whose lawyers have filed petitions. During the hearing on Alejandro’s case, the district attorney and the ACLU agreed that the decision would set a rule for local cases.
The impact of the ruling statewide may depend on whether it is appealed and upheld, or, if it is not appealed, whether district attorneys in other counties are influenced by its unequivocal language.
“If other district attorneys throughout California are tempted to adopt Bonnie Dumanis’ very harsh views of Proposition 47, they should take a look at this ruling,” said ACLU attorney Kellen Russoniello.
Dumanis’ office has not decided whether to appeal. In a statement, her office stressed that it continues to believe that rehabilitation, not incarceration, is the goal of the juvenile justice system:
“We support a juvenile justice system that has a goal of rehabilitation focused on providing the care, treatment and guidance in the best interest of minors. The D.A.'s office is committed to keeping as many kids out of the criminal justice system as possible.”
Robert Fellmeth, a law professor at the University of San Diego and executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law and the Children’s Advocacy Institute, hailed the ruling as consistent with voters’ intent. Nothing in the campaign for or against the measure suggested it was for adults only, he said.
“Under what rationale do we select out a 15-year-old for a more condemnatory consequence than a 32-year-old?” Fellmeth said.
Imperial County Dist. Atty. Gilbert Otero, who opposed Proposition 47, said that although he understands that clarification was needed in the issue of adults versus juveniles, the second part of the decision troubles him. That ruling could lead to the wholesale destruction of DNA samples taken from juveniles who were convicted of felonies that have been reduced to misdemeanors.
“This is a significant blow to the state’s DNA database, which has tremendous value as a crime-solving tool,” Otero said.
The appellate panel noted that the measure uses language normally associated only with adults. Still, the court ruled that: “Offense reclassification provisions are equally applicable to juvenile offenders.”
Maryann D’Addezio Kotler, assistant supervising attorney in the San Diego County public defender’s juvenile delinquency branch, filed the petition for the release of Alejandro and several other juveniles who were in custody.
The number of juvenile defendants who should be eligible under Proposition 47 for a sentence reduction, DNA sample removal and/or record cleansing is increasing, Kotler said.
“We identify them almost every day,” she said.
Chessie Thacher of the firm Keker & Van Nest, which supported the ACLU and other litigants against the district attorney, said there is not yet uniformity among California counties on whether to apply Proposition 47 to juveniles.
“Many were watching this case before deciding,” she said.
In Los Angeles County, under Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, prosecutors did not wait until the San Diego case was decided. “We’ve always believed it applied to juveniles,” said prosecutor Kerry White, who supervises the office’s juvenile division.
As for Alejandro, he is back in high school and has not been rearrested, Kotler said.
“He’s doing well,” she said, “since getting out of custody.”