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People v. Hernandez

November 9, 2009


(Santa Cruz County Super. Ct. No. F12934) Trial Judge: Hon. Jeff Almquist

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elia, J.

On rehearing


After a jury trial defendant Jacob Townley Hernandez (Townley) was convicted of premeditated attempted murder, in violation of Penal Code sections 187, subdivision (a), and 664. The jury also found true the allegations that Townley had personally used a gun and had personally inflicted great bodily injury in committing the crime. (Pen. Code, § 12022.53, subdivision (c); § 12022.7, subd. (a).) On appeal, he raises numerous issues bearing on his right to consult with counsel, admission of statements made by witnesses in police interviews, prosecutor misconduct, improper judicial comments, admission of gang evidence, and jury instructions. He further challenges the denial of his pretrial motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of his detention. On July 23, 2009, this court filed an unpublished opinion affirming the judgment. On August 14, 2009, we granted Townley's petition for rehearing to give more attention to a gag order that prevented defense counsel from discussing the contents of two declarations by witnesses with Townley. Upon further review, for the reasons stated below, we will reverse the judgment.*fn1

I. Background

Seventeen-year-old Townley was accused by information with attempted murder, committed with three accomplices: 18-year-old Jose Ruben Rocha, 16-year-old Jesse Carranco, and 18-year-old Noe Flores. The charges arose from the shooting of Javier Zurita Lazaro around 9:00 p.m. on February 17, 2006. In a telephone call at about 7:00 p.m. that night, Townley asked Flores to "do a ride." Flores drove his 1992 white Honda Accord to pick up Townley and his girlfriend, Amanda Johnston, in Santa Cruz. Once in the car, Townley showed Flores a small black handgun, which Flores handled and returned to Townley.

Townley directed Flores to drive to Watsonville, where they picked up Carranco (known as "Little Huero") and Rocha (known as "Listo"), whom Flores had not met before. Townley was wearing People's Exhibit 23, a red and black plaid flannel jacket, which Johnston had given him as a gift. Carranco wore a red hooded sweatshirt; he had four dots tattooed on his knuckles, signifying his association with the Norteno gang. Flores wore black sweatpants, a white T-shirt, gloves, and a black zip-up hooded sweatshirt. Rocha wore a black flannel jacket with white in it.

The group then drove back to Santa Cruz, dropping Johnston off before heading downtown. They went to an apartment on Harper Street where Anthony Gonzalez lived. About 20 minutes later, the four drove toward the Ocean Terrace apartments, located at the corner of Merrill Street and 17th Avenue in an area known as Sureno gang territory. As they were moving down 17th Avenue, they saw Javier Lazaro on the sidewalk across the street, walking back to his apartment at the Ocean Terrace complex. Lazaro, aged 29, was not associated with any gang, but the sweatshirt he wore was blue, the color associated with the Surenos. Carranco told Flores in a "[k]ind of urgent" voice to turn around and pull over, and Flores did so. Grabbing a T-ball bat that Flores kept in the front passenger area, Carranco jumped out of the car, along with Townley and Rocha. Flores waited in the driver's seat with the engine running. He heard what sounded like firecrackers; then the three others ran back to the car and Carranco told him "urgently" to go. Flores drove away rapidly with his passengers and followed Carranco's directions back to Gonzalez's apartment.

Lazaro testified that as he was walking back to his apartment he heard three or four voices from inside Flores's car, and then someone yelled, "Come here." He thought it was directed at someone else, so he continued walking without turning around. Just as he reached the parking lot of the apartment complex, he saw the group get out of the car and run across the street toward him. They asked him whether he was Norteno or Sureno. At that point Lazaro was frightened and ran, until he felt something push him to the ground. Lazaro received five gunshot wounds, including a fractured rib and a bruised lung. Two bullets remained in his body.

Lazaro did not see who shot him, but Ginger Weisel, Lazaro's neighbor, was in the parking lot when Lazaro walked away from the group. She heard them call out "fucking scrap" and ask where Lazaro was from before seeing one of them shoot Lazaro six to eight times. Lazaro fell after about four shots. Weisel recalled that the shooter was about five feet, nine inches tall*fn2 and wore a red and black plaid Pendleton shirt. Weisel called 911 from her apartment and returned to help Lazaro.

David Bacon was driving on 17th Avenue when he saw Flores's car parked in a no-parking zone. He saw what appeared to be two Latino males of high school age, about five feet 10 inches tall. Seconds later he heard snapping sounds and saw one of the group standing in a "classic shooting position," holding a gun. He heard a total of five or six shots from what appeared to be a small-caliber gun. Bacon had the impression that the shooter wore a plaid jacket, which could have been People's Exhibit 22. The second man appeared to be a lookout. Bacon then saw two people run back to the car, which sped away. He parked his car, called 911, and returned to help Lazaro, who was lying on the ground with two women tending to him. Emergency personnel arrived within a minute after the last shot.

Susan Randolph stepped outside her home on 17th Avenue when she heard the gunshots. She described the three as young Latinos between 16 and 20 years old, ranging from five feet, six inches to five feet, nine inches.

Julie Dufresne was driving on 17th Avenue with Jeanne Taylor when she heard popping noises that sounded like fireworks, followed immediately by three people running across the street in front of her car. They were all about her height, five feet nine or 10 inches, or probably shorter, and they appeared to be between 15 and 20 years old. One wore a thin, red and black plaid flannel jacket.

Taylor thought there were five popping sounds, followed by the "three young men" running across the street in front of the car. One of them was less than five feet, five inches and wore what looked like a plaid Pendleton shirt in black and red. He appeared to be staggering as if he were drunk or "having difficulty with his coordination." The other two were taller; one wore a white and black plaid shirt, People's Exhibit 22, and the other a hooded sweatshirt. When they reached the white car, one went to the backseat on the driver's side, and the other two went around to the passenger side. Taylor thought that People's Exhibit 23 looked like the red and black shirt the "shorter person" had been wearing; Dufresne "couldn't say for sure."

Randi Fritts-Nash was one of the teenagers drinking at the Harper Street apartment. Sitting in Gonzalez's bedroom with five others, she heard a car pull into the parking lot, followed by a couple of knocks at the window. Gonzalez went to the window and then left the room. Before he left, Fritts-Nash heard the anxious voices of two people outside, one of whom said the words "hit" and "scrap."

When Gonzalez reappeared, Townley and the other three were with him. Townley was wearing a red and black plaid jacket, People's Exhibit 23. Fritts-Nash heard Townley say something to Gonzalez about Watsonville Nortenos. She also saw Townley pull a small handgun out of his pocket and wipe off the prints with a blanket. Townley moved the gun several times from one pocket to another, saying, "I need to hide this gun." He also told her he was "looking at 25 to life." Rejecting Fritts-Nash's suggested hiding place, Townley put the gun in his shoe and a small black velvet bag of bullets into his other shoe. Townley told her to cross her fingers for good luck. Fritts-Nash asked him if he had shot someone; his head movement indicated an affirmative answer.

Townley and Carranco were tried together as adults under Welfare and Institutions Code section 707, subdivision (d)(2). On January 25, 2007, the court granted Townley's motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants. Before trial both Flores and Rocha entered into plea agreements in which the prosecution would reduce the charges in exchange for their declarations under penalty of perjury. Flores thereafter pleaded guilty to assault with a firearm subject to a three-year prison term, and the prosecutor dismissed the attempted murder charge against him. Rocha pleaded guilty to assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, with an expected sentence of two years. On the same date that Flores and Rocha entered their pleas, April 17, 2007, the prosecution filed a motion to reconsolidate the cases against Carranco and Townley, which the court subsequently granted on April 26, 2007.

The jury found Townley guilty of attempted premeditated murder and found the People's allegations of firearm use and great bodily injury to be true. (Pen. Code, § 12022.53, subds (b), (c), (d); § 12022.5, subd. (a); § 12022.7, subd. (a).) On September 12, 2007, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the attempted murder, with a consecutive term of 25 years to life for the section 12022.53 firearm enhancement.



1. Restriction on Attorney-Client Discussion of the Flores Declaration

The guilty pleas in Flores's and Rocha's cases were taken in closed proceedings and the reporter's transcripts were sealed by trial court order.*fn3 At Flores's plea hearing the prosecutor stated that Flores would be permitted to serve his sentence out of state "because he was previously stabbed in the jail. There are very serious concerns about his physical well-being."

Rocha's declaration stated that he understood that he had "to tell the judge in open court and under oath what I myself did on February 17, 2006." In Flores's declaration, on the other hand, he stated: "I understand that I have to tell the judge in open court and under oath that the contents of this declaration are true." He also stated, "I do understand that I may be called as a witness in any hearing related to the events that transpired on February 17, 2006."

At each change-of-plea hearing, the court ordered the declaration to be filed under seal, to be opened only if the prosecution called him to testify about any of the matters covered in the declaration. Defense counsel were permitted to look at the document, but they were "prohibited from discussing the contents or the existence of the document with their client or any other person." Defense counsel also were not permitted to have a copy of the declarations. As the Attorney General notes, Flores's counsel emphasized that, even if the declaration was opened under those circumstances, it "will not ultimately be part of the paperwork that follows Mr. Flores to his prison commitment." Thereafter, the prosecution provided a written copy to the defense counsel.*fn4

Counsel for Townley and Carranco were unsuccessful in moving to withdraw the order not to discuss the contents or existence of the document with their clients. At a hearing from which the defendants were excluded, the court reasoned that it would be improper to rescind the order without Flores's and Rocha's counsel being present. The court did advise defense counsel that if the witnesses testified inconsistently with their statements, then the sealing order "would be undone" and counsel would be free to cross-examine them with the declarations. When the prosecutor asserted that defense counsel had a right to use the documents to cross-examine and impeach them, the court stated, "That's going a little beyond what we put on the record, those plea agreements. The agreement was for their protection." The court agreed with the prosecutor's statement, "So once they take the stand, the order would necessarily disappear because it doesn't make sense anymore."

Neither Flores nor Rocha was on the prosecutor's list of proposed witnesses filed April 27, 2007. Rocha was not called as a witness at trial. Flores was called as a witness on the second day of trial testimony. At the end of the day, in the jury's absence, his attorney was called in to a hearing at which the court explained that, "in order to provide for adequate cross-examination of Mr. Flores . . . that Counsel be provided with copies of his statement. . . . [T]he statement may not be shared with the clients. We've already talked about that." "They're subject to the same nondisclosure to clients, to investigator, to other attorneys[. I]t's only to be used by" defense counsel for purposes of cross-examination. "They have to be returned." Carranco's counsel asked again to be able to discuss it with his client. The court denied the request, pointing out that counsel had a lengthy statement from Flores to the police. The court added, "Put that in your briefcase and do not share it with Mr. Carranco. Put it in [your] briefcase right now."

Direct examination of Flores resumed two trial days later. He was the sole witness on the fifth day of testimony. During Carranco's cross-examination of Flores, the prosecutor successfully objected to defense counsel's reading the title of the document. Carranco's counsel tried to ask Flores about the requirement that he sign the declaration in order to obtain the three-year sentence; again the prosecutor's objection was sustained, as was a question about Flores's methamphetamine use on the night of the shooting. In the jury's absence, the court explained that it also sustained some of the prosecutor's objections because they were "questions about things that weren't in the document . . . suggesting to the jury that we'd intentionally omitted facts. And that's misleading." The court stated that "[t]he document is sealed for protection of Mr. Flores." The examination of Flores concluded on the sixth day of testimony. Eventually the trial court took judicial notice of the fact that the declaration was part of the plea bargain and accordingly instructed the jury.

On appeal, Townley contends that the court's restrictions before trial and during examination of Flores violated Townley's Sixth Amendment right to consult with his attorney. Finding no California authority directly on point, we review federal authority.

Maine v. Moulton (1985) 474 U.S. 159 (106 S.Ct. 477) recognized at pages 168 and 169: "The right to the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments is indispensable to the fair administration of our adversarial system of criminal justice. [Fn. omitted.] Embodying 'a realistic recognition of the obvious truth that the average defendant does not have the professional legal skill to protect himself' (Johnson v. Zerbst [(1938)] 304 U.S. 458, 462-463), the right to counsel safeguards the other rights deemed essential for the fair prosecution of a criminal proceeding."

"The special value of the right to the assistance of counsel explains why '[i]t has long been recognized that the right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.' " (U. S. v. Cronic (1984) 466 U.S. 648, 654 [104 S.Ct. 2039], quoting McMann v. Richardson (1970) 397 U.S. 759, 771, fn. 14 [90 S.Ct. 1441].)

Courts have recognized that legal assistance can be more effective when attorneys and clients are allowed to confer, consult, and communicate. Inevitably, there are practical limitations that restrict the opportunities of criminal defendants to consult with their attorneys, including the defendant's custodial status, technological means available, the attorney's other commitments, the availability of courtrooms, the needs for orderly and timely court proceedings. In the context of a request for continuance, the United States Supreme Court has recognized, "Not every restriction on counsel's time or opportunity to investigate or to consult with his client or otherwise to prepare for trial violates a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel." (Morris v. Slappy (1983) 461 U.S. 1, 11 [103 S.Ct. 1610].) But when the government unjustifiably interferes with attorney-client communication, the result may be determined to be a violation of a criminal defendant's constitutional "right to the assistance of counsel." (Geders v. United States (1976) 425 U.S. 80, 91 [96 S.Ct. 1330] [Geders].)

In Perry v. Leeke (1989) 488 U.S. 272 (109 S.Ct. 594) (Perry), the United States Supreme Court discussed 20 cases from federal and state courts (but not California) in footnote 2 on page 277 in support of the proposition: "Federal and state courts since Geders have expressed varying views on the constitutionality of orders barring a criminal defendant's access to his or her attorney during a trial recess." (Cf. Annot., Trial court's order that accused and his attorney not communicate during recess in trial as reversible error under Sixth Amendment guaranty of right to counsel (1989) 96 A.L.R. Fed. 601; Annot., Scope and extent, and remedy or sanctions for infringement, of accused's right to communicate with his attorney (1966) 5 A.L.R.3d 1360.)

In Geders, the United States Supreme Court held "that an order preventing petitioner from consulting his counsel 'about anything' during a 17-hour overnight recess between his direct- and cross-examination impinged on his right to the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." (Geders, supra, 425 U.S. 80, 91.) In Perry, the United States Supreme Court held "that the Federal Constitution does not compel every trial judge to allow the defendant to consult with his lawyer while his testimony is in progress if the judge decides that there is a good reason to interrupt the trial for a few minutes." (Perry, supra, 488 U.S. 272, 284-285.) "[W]hen a defendant becomes a witness, he has no constitutional right to consult with his lawyer while he is testifying." (Id. at p. 281.) In Perry, "[a]t the conclusion of his direct testimony, the trial court declared a 15-minute recess, and, without advance notice to counsel, ordered that petitioner not be allowed to talk to anyone, including his lawyer, during the break." (Id. at p. 274.)

California decisions are in accord. People v. Zammora (1944) 66 Cal.App.2d 166 (Zammora) appears to have been a gang case of sorts (though not a criminal street gang) involving 22 defendants, 12 of whom were convicted of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. (Id. at pp. 173-174.) On appeal, the defendants asserted "that the right of appellants to defend in person and with counsel was unduly restricted by the seating arrangement of the appellants in the courtroom, which, together with certain rulings of the court, prevented the defendants from consulting with their counsel during the course of the trial or during recess periods." (Id. at p. 226.) The defendants were seated in a group in the courtroom at sufficient distance from the five defense counsel as to be ...

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