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People v. Hajjaj

November 4, 2010

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
FIRME HASSAN HAJJAJ, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



Ct.App. 4/1 D054754 Riverside County Super. Ct. No. SWF024102 Judge: Thomas H. Cahraman

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

In this case, as in People v. Engram (Oct. 25, 2010, S176983) ___ Cal.4th ___ (Engram), the trial court concluded that on the last day established by Penal Code section 1382 for bringing this Riverside County criminal proceeding to trial, there were no courtrooms or judges available to try the case. Defendant objected to any further continuance and, at his request, the court scheduled a hearing for the following day on his motion to dismiss the action. At the conclusion of that hearing, the trial court granted defendant's motion, pursuant to section 1382.*fn1

On appeal, the People, represented by the district attorney, initially challenged the dismissal solely on the ground that the trial court should have transferred the case for trial to any judge assigned to a civil courtroom -- the principal contention advanced in Engram by the district attorney and analyzed in our decision in that case.

In response to a request by the Court of Appeal for supplemental briefing, the district attorney additionally argued that the trial court's dismissal of the action was improper in light of the circumstance that at 4:15 p.m. on the last permissible day for bringing the case to trial, a courtroom and judge had become available at a branch of the Superior Court for Riverside County (hereafter Riverside Superior Court or Riverside court) located in the City of Indio, 76 miles from the main criminal courthouse in the City of Riverside, where defendant and all counsel were present awaiting assignment of the case for trial. After learning that a courtroom in Indio had become available because a trial being conducted there had just concluded, the trial court informed the parties that this development had no bearing on the merits of defendant's motion to dismiss, because it was too late in the day for defendant and his counsel to reach that distant courtroom and for the case to be brought to trial before the close of court that day.

The Court of Appeal, however, disagreed with the conclusion reached by the trial court, holding instead that under the circumstances presented by this case "the physical remoteness [of the open courtroom] constitutes good cause within the meaning of [section 1382] to commence the trial the next day at the branch court."*fn2 We granted review to consider the validity of this determination by the Court of Appeal.

For the reasons discussed below, we conclude the Court of Appeal's decision should be reversed. The reviewing court suggested that the trial court, in granting defendant's motion to dismiss, had "overlooked the fact that in a large and populous county like the County of Riverside, which is served by one superior court consisting of a central courthouse for criminal matters (the Riverside Hall of Justice) and various outlying branch facilities (such as the Indio court), the administration of justice and the efficient utilization of limited judicial resources may require the parties to a criminal proceeding to travel to a distant court facility." The record demonstrates, however, that the trial court did not overlook the possibility and propriety of requiring the parties to travel to a distant court facility; on the contrary, the trial court specifically stated that if the Indio courtroom "had been available an hour and a half prior, then . . . I would have had people on the road." The trial court's action was not based upon a reluctance to require defendant and counsel to travel to a distant courthouse, but rather upon a recognition that, because of the combination of the lateness of the hour and the time it would take for defendant and counsel to reach that courtroom, the Indio courtroom was not an "available courtroom" in which defendant could be brought to trial within the statutorily prescribed period. Moreover, contrary to the conclusion reached by the Court of Appeal, the "physical remoteness" of the Indio courtroom did not constitute "good cause" under section 1382 to delay defendant's trial. This geographical circumstance simply precluded the occurrence of one of the elements essential to the commencement of trial -- namely, the physical presence of defendant and his counsel in a courtroom that is available for trial -- within the period established by that statute, a situation rendering the particular courtroom, in fact, unavailable. Because, as in Engram, the lack of any judge or courtroom available to bring this case to trial within the statutory period resulted from chronic court congestion attributable to the state, the trial court properly concluded that good cause did not exist under section 1382 to delay defendant's trial. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court, pursuant to section 1382, properly dismissed the proceeding.

I.

By information filed in the Riverside Superior Court on May 2, 2008, defendant Firme Hassan Hajjaj was charged with selling or transporting a controlled substance, a felony. (Health & Saf. Code, § 11379, subd. (a).) It was alleged as an enhancement that he had suffered a prior felony conviction for the same offense. (Health & Saf. Code, § 11370.2, subd. (a).) Additionally, it was alleged that the same prior conviction had resulted in a separate prison term and that defendant had reoffended within five years of the conclusion of that prior term. (§ 667.5, subd. (b).) Defendant posted bail and remained free from custody from the time he was arraigned on the complaint through the conclusion of the proceedings.

Defendant was arraigned on the information on May 6, 2008, and a trial-readiness conference was set for May 28, 2008. The clerk noted that the last permissible day for trial to commence would be July 7, 2008. At the readiness conference conducted on May 28, 2008, trial was set for June 30, 2008, and the clerk again noted that the last permissible day for trial to commence would be July 7, 2008.

On June 30, 2008, trial was trailed to July 1, 2008, and the clerk again noted that the last permissible day for trial to commence would be July 7, 2008. On the latter date, the parties announced their readiness for trial, and the matter was assigned for trial to the master calendar department, with trial set for July 10, 2008. The clerk's entry for that date indicates that counsel stipulated that the last permissible day for trial would be July 14, 2008.

On July 10, 2008, the defense moved for continuance pursuant to section 1050, because the deputy public defender representing defendant was in trial on another case. The People did not object and the court found good cause for continuance, setting a new trial date of July 16, 2008. The clerk noted the last permissible day for trial would be July 28, 2008.

On July 16, 2008, the People announced they were not ready for trial, because the deputy district attorney assigned to the case was in trial on another case. Defense counsel objected to any further delay. The court determined good cause had been demonstrated for continuance and trailed the matter to July 23, 2008, "due to courtroom unavailability." The clerk noted that the "[d]ates set are within [the] previous time waiver."

On July 23, 2008, both parties announced ready for trial but agreed to trail the matter until July 25. July 28 remained the last day for trial.

On Friday, July 25, 2008, both parties again stated their readiness for trial and announced an anticipated trial duration of three days. On its own motion, however, the trial court trailed the matter to July 28, 2008, again "due to courtroom unavailability."

On Monday, July 28, 2008, at 4:04 p.m., both sides indicated they were ready for trial, but the court announced: "The Court finds there are no available courtrooms a[t] this time." The court acknowledged that it was the last day for commencement of trial, but informed the parties*fn3 that "we are out of courtrooms." Defendant objected to any further delay and moved for dismissal.

During the hearing, at 4:15 p.m., the court received information that a criminal trial had just been completed in Indio at a different branch of the Riverside Superior Court (Judge Hawkins, presiding). The court previously had considered sending a case to the Indio facility, noting that it had been checking all day with court personnel at that facility, that the Indio trial judge in question had been involved in closing arguments in a murder case, and that "it didn't look like he would open before the end of the day. Now it's 4:15 in the afternoon and he just now opened." The court added that "it takes an hour and 20 minutes [to drive there] if you were already in the car." The court stated: "I just don't think that solves anything."

Upon learning that the trial in Judge Hawkins's courtroom in Indio had concluded, the prosecutor suggested "that the court could send the case out at this point in time. There could be a DA [deputy district attorney] in the courtroom within the next five minutes in Judge Hawkins' court. And, so from our position, the court could send one of these cases out. We would be ready. There would be a courtroom available, provided there is a jury available."

The court disagreed with the prosecutor's position: "I don't see how it starts a trial to have a DA not prepared on it show up and say, 'I'm a DA and I'm in a courtroom,' when to start the trial, as I understand it, a jury needs to be impaneled, and at least a few questions of court voir dire have to be commenced. [¶] With the defendant not there, the defense lawyer not there, and the DA there who is not prepared, I don't see that that's the start of the trial under the law." The court concluded: "And as to whether all of this then ties up to . . . good cause for continuance . . . to go beyond the statutory periods, my understanding is that it does not."

In his motion to dismiss, defendant alleged (1) that he was not brought to trial within 10 days of the date set for trial, in violation of section 1382, subdivision (a) (section 1382(a)), and (2) that the delay constituted a violation of his state and federal constitutional rights to speedy trial. In support of the motion, his counsel submitted a declaration asserting that defendant and counsel appeared in department 63, the master calendar department, at 8:30 ...


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