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People v. Vang

June 7, 2010


CONSOLIDATED APPEALS from an order of the Superior Court of San Diego County, Michael D. Wellington, Judge. Affirmed as modified. (Super. Ct. No. SCD213306).

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


The principal issue in this appeal is whether the court erred in admitting the gang expert's opinion regarding defendants' knowledge and intent in committing the underlying assault over defense objections that the testimony exceeded the limits set forth in People v. Killebrew (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 644 (Killebrew). One or more defendants also raise evidentiary issues, dispute the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdicts, ask that we review the police officer personnel records viewed in camera by the trial court pursuant to Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531 (Pitchess), challenge a probation condition, and assert that any failure to make timely and specific objections or motions should be deemed ineffective assistance of counsel. We conclude that the court erred in admitting expert opinion on defendants' knowledge and intent in response to two hypothetical questions, but the error was harmless. We modify item 12G of the probation order for one defendant as agreed by the parties, and affirm the judgment as modified.


Police arrested Xue Vang, Sunny Sitthideth, Dang Ha and Danny Lê after breaking up a street fight in which William Phanakhon was knocked out, but not seriously injured. The jury convicted the four defendants of assault by means of force likely to cause great bodily injury, and found true the gang enhancement allegation. The jury found not true the special allegations that defendants personally inflicted great bodily injury and used a deadly weapon in the commission of the assault.

Vang, Sitthideth and Ha received prison sentences which included two or three years for the gang enhancement imposed under the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act). (Pen. Code, § 186.20 et seq.; undesignated statutory references are to the Penal Code.) The court sentenced Vang to a total of six years, Sitthideth to four years, and Lê to 12 years based on his admission that he had one prior strike. It suspended execution of Ha's sentence and placed him on probation with various conditions, including one year of jail custody. All four defendants appeal. Sitthideth and Lê expressly join in relevant arguments presented by their co-defendants.


The victim, 20-year-old William Phanakhon, lived with his family in Mira Mesa. After graduating from high school, Phanakhon began hanging out with members of the Tiny Oriental Crips or "TOC" criminal street gang. At trial, Sitthideth, Ha and Lê stipulated to being members of TOC. However, Vang denied any gang connections. Phanakhon also denied gang membership. He stated he committed no crimes, and simply went out to eat, drink or hang around with people who were TOC members. Phanakhon met the four defendants in the fall and winter of 2007. Sitthideth, Ha and Vang were often present when Phanakhon was with members of TOC. However, Phanakhon recalled meeting Lê on just one occasion. Eventually, Phanakhon began declining invitations to go out with gang members because "[t]his is not where [he] wanted [his] life to go."

Phanakhon was at home watching television between 10:00 and 11:00 on the night of April 28, 2008, when he received a phone call. The caller, whose voice sounded familiar, asked to come over. Phanakhon thought it was a neighbor and agreed. He went to his garage and Vang arrived a short time later. Phanakhon also saw Lê peek inside the garage. About five minutes later, Vang asked Phanakhon if he wanted to go hang out. Phanakhon followed Vang down the street. He also saw Ha and Sitthideth walking towards the corner. When Phanakhon rounded the corner, someone struck him in the back of the head from behind. He fell down and tried to protect his head from continued punches. Phanakhon was unable to describe anything about the assault because he lost consciousness until assisted by police and paramedics.

By coincidence, members of the San Diego Police Department gang unit were conducting surveillance near the scene of the assault. Detective Dave Collins was seated in an unmarked car watching the intersection through his side rear view mirror. Detective Collins was the only officer with a clear view of the incident, being situated approximately 110 feet away from the corner which was illuminated by a street light. There was a second street light approximately 10 to 20 feet away from Detective Collins.

Detective Collins watched as four males approached the corner. Suddenly, three of the men began beating the fourth, but the victim did not fight back. At one point, the victim fell to the ground, but two of the assailants pulled him up and hit him again. Detective Collins observed two of the men back up while the third pulled out a stick or pipe and used it to strike the victim on the head. The victim fell to the ground a second time. Detective Collins broadcast that he was witnessing a "beat down." Officer Michael Dewitt, also part of the surveillance team, responded and was the first to arrive on the scene. He saw four men beating the victim.

As additional members of the surveillance team moved in, the assailants fled. Detective Collins arrested Vang after a short chase. Ha, Sitthideth and Lê were arrested nearby. However, a search of the scene failed to locate anything resembling the stick or pipe that Detective Collins described.

When Officer Jacob Resch arrived, he saw Phanakhon sitting upright on the curb. Detective Collins, who arrived after Officer Resch, observed that Phanakhon was non-responsive to questioning even after Detective Collins worked to revive him. Detective Collins also observed that the left side of Phanakhon's face had begun to swell. Paramedics transported Phanakhon to the hospital where he was examined for head injuries, then released.

Phanakhon offered at least two "guesses" for why he was assaulted by the defendants. First, he believed he was attacked for "disassociating" himself from TOC, even though he testified that he had never been a member of the gang. Second, Phanakhon suggested that he got "checked" because he heard something he was not supposed to hear. Phanakhon stated that he was not afraid of the defendants. He was, however, afraid of TOC and what might happen to him or his family if he testified at trial.

The prosecution called Detective Daniel Hatfield as its expert witness on criminal street gangs. Detective Hatfield testified about the culture and habits of gangs, including member-on-member discipline for no longer hanging out with the gang or not "putting in work." Turning to TOC, he described it as a predominantly Laotian group that split off from a larger gang set in the early 1990's and claimed Linda Vista as its territory. Detective Hatfield identified three separate predicate offenses committed by its members and opined that TOC was a criminal street gang. Given the stipulation, there was no dispute that Ha, Sitthideth and Lê were members of TOC. Detective Hatfield believed that Vang and the victim Phanakhon were also gang members. He described the Department of Justice guidelines and San Diego Police Department guidelines for documenting "contacts" with suspected gang members. He testified that although Vang had not identified himself as a gang member, he met all the Department of Justice guidelines. As to Phanakhon, Detective Hatfield stated that he met the San Diego Police Department guidelines based on his association with TOC. On cross-examination, Detective Hatfield testified that the three "contacts" with Phanakhon included: (1) the April 28, 2008 incident at issue here; (2) a traffic stop in March 2008 in which San Diego police officers found a picture of a gang member in his passenger's purse, but no one in the car was identified as a gang member; and (3) the discovery in October 2007 of Phanakhon's number along with at least 50 others on Ha's cell phone. Detective Hatfield acknowledged that the San Diego Police Department guidelines for documenting gang members might differ from those the gang used to define its membership.

Over defense objection, Detective Hatfield responded to two hypothetical questions from the prosecution that tracked the facts of the case. Detective Hatfield opined that if a "young baby gangster" in TOC was not putting in work or hanging out with TOC members, a physical assault on that "young baby gangster" was designed to put the person "in check" and bring him back in line with the gang's expectations. He stated that the assault would benefit TOC and was committed in association with TOC and at the direction of TOC members. Detective Hatfield also opined that, based on a second hypothetical that included Detective Hatfield's opinions as to the hypothetical parties' gang membership, the attack on the "young baby gangster" was gang motivated. When questioned further by the prosecution, Detective Hatfield responded that the hypothetical facts told him that "this is a gang-motivated incident. It wasn't about friends fighting among one another."

Vang testified at trial against the advice of his attorney. The court warned Vang that in addition to allowing impeachment with prior felony convictions, his testimony might open the door to questioning that could cause unnecessary damage to his own defense and that of the other defendants. Thereafter, Vang briefly testified that he was not a member of TOC, had no tattoos, and was not in any of the gang photos introduced at trial. On cross-examination, Vang acknowledged his priors. He also acknowledged that he hung out with members of TOC. Over defense objection that the question exceeded the scope of direct, Vang testified that he was hanging out with members of TOC on April 28, 2008. The court cautioned the prosecutor about the scope of direct examination and there were no further questions about the events of that date.

However, Sitthideth did testify about events that occurred in Phanakhon's garage before the fight on the street. Contrary to Phanakhon's testimony, Sitthideth stated that he, Vang, Ha and Lê went to Phanakhon's house around 9:00 p.m., where they all ate pizza in the garage. When Phanakhon brought "something" out of his pocket, he and Vang started calling each other names. Phanakhon challenged Vang to a fight, and the group went outside to watch the one-on-one fight between Phanakhon and Vang at the corner.


I. The Gang Enhancement

A. Admission of the Gang Expert's Opinion on Defendants' Knowledge and Intent

As we explained, the information included the special allegation that defendants committed the assault "for the benefit of, at the direction of, and in association with a criminal street gang with the specific intent to promote, further and assist criminal conduct by gang members within the meaning of" section 186.22, subdivision (b)(1). Defendants argue that the trial court abused its discretion when it allowed Detective Hatfield to testify in response to a hypothetical question that the assault on Phanakhon, thinly disguised in the hypothetical as "young baby gangster," was for the benefit of TOC and was gang motivated. Defendants contend Detective Hatfield's testimony was mere speculation and the ultimate issues of knowledge and intent were for the jury to decide.

Resolution of the question requires us to consider the gang testimony in light of rules that usually permit experts to testify on ultimate issues through hypothetical questions (Evid. Code, § 801; People v. Gardeley (1996) 14 Cal.4th 605, 618 (Gardeley)), but disallow expert testimony on a specific defendant's knowledge and intent that "'amounts to no more than an expression of his general belief as to how the case should be decided....' [Citation.]" (Killebrew, supra, 103 Cal.App.4th at pp. 647, 651.) We are also mindful of the common use of a fiction which Ha's defense counsel aptly described when objecting to Detective Hatfield's testimony:

"[W]hen a hypothetical is crafted so carefully that it is transparent to everybody in the courtroom, including the jury, that we are talking about the facts of this very case, I think that crosses the line and it becomes [Killebrew error] rather than an expert witness answering the general hypothetical.... And I think that what that does is pay lip service to the rule that you can offer a hypothetical, while in reality, as is perfectly apparent to every juror what you are really doing is asking the witness to opine on his [subjective] thoughts and ideas of the defendants...."

Although a bright line between gang expert testimony which is or is not admissible to show knowledge and intent may be elusive, we conclude that Detective Hatfield's testimony crossed it. We agree with the rule of Killebrew that an expert witness may not offer an opinion on what a particular defendant is thinking. (Killebrew, supra, 103 Cal.App.4th at p. 647.) And more importantly here, the prosecutor may not circumvent that rule by asking the expert a hypothetical question that thinly disguises the defendants' identity. We also conclude that the error in admitting Detective Hatfield's responses to the hypothetical questions was harmless in the circumstances of this case.

Under California law, a person with "special knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" in a particular field may qualify as an expert witness and give testimony in the form of an opinion. (Evid. Code, §§ 720, 801.) However, expert testimony is admissible only if it relates to a subject "sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact...." (Evid. Code, § 801.) The culture and habits of criminal street gangs are appropriate subjects for expert testimony and therefore admissible. (Gardeley, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 617.) Expert opinion on a specific defendant's subjective knowledge and intent is not. (Killebrew, supra, 103 Cal.App.4th at pp. 647, 651.)

The trial court has "considerable discretion" to control how the expert is questioned "'to prevent the jury from learning of incompetent hearsay.' [Citation.]" and "'to weigh the probative value of inadmissible evidence relied upon by an expert witness... against the risk that the jury might improperly consider it as independent proof of the facts recited therein.' [Citation.]" (Gardeley, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 619.) We review the trial court's rulings on the admissibility of expert testimony for abuse of discretion. (People v. Lindberg (2008) 45 Cal.4th 1, 45.) Here, the trial court abused its discretion by admitting Detective Hatfield's testimony regarding defendants' knowledge and intent based on its apparent belief that such testimony was admissible so long as it was presented in the form of a hypothetical. As we explain, the prosecution may not use a hypothetical question to conceal an expert's improper testimony on the real defendants' subjective knowledge and intent.

The prosecution typically offers expert testimony on criminal street gangs in two forms: (1) the expert's description of a particular gang's colors, territory, typical crimes, and other matters relating to gang culture or psychology based on "material not admitted into evidence" as long as it is "of a type that reasonably may be relied upon by an expert in forming an opinion upon the subject to which his testimony relates" (Evid. Code, § 801; see e.g., People v. Gonzalez (2005) 126 Cal.App.4th 1539, 1545 [prison activities of the "Mexican Mafia"]) and (2) the expert's opinion in response to a hypothetical question based on facts shown by the evidence which asks the expert to assume their truth (Gardeley, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 618). On direct examination, the expert may describe the reasons for his or her opinion and the matter on which the opinion is based. (Evid. Code, § 802.) As long as that material meets a threshold requirement of reliability, "matter that is ordinarily inadmissible can form the proper basis for an expert's opinion testimony." (Gardeley, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 618, italics in original.)

"Testimony in the form of an opinion that is otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces the ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact." (Evid. Code, ยง 805.) However, courts cannot allow experts to express any opinion they may have about gangs and gang activities. (Killebrew, supra, 103 Cal.App.4th at pp. 651, 654.) The defendant in Killebrew was one of several men arrested in connection with a drive-by shooting. He was not inside any of the three cars police suspected were involved, but was standing on a nearby corner when police stopped one of the cars. The discovery of a handgun at a nearby taco stand and in at least one of the cars formed the basis for Killebrew's prosecution for conspiring to possess a handgun. (Id. at pp. 647-649.) The court reversed his conviction on appeal. (Id. at p. 647.) The error identified in Killebrew was that "in response to hypothetical questions, the People's gang expert exceeded the permissible scope of expert testimony by opining on 'the subjective knowledge and intent of each' of the gang members involved in the crime. [Citation.]" (People v. Gonzalez, supra, 126 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1550-1551, italics in original.) Specifically, the expert testified that each of the individuals in a caravan of three cars knew there were guns in two of the cars and jointly possessed the guns with everyone else in the three cars for mutual protection. (Id. ...

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