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The People v. Donald Roots

IN THE COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT (Sacramento)


August 1, 2011

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
DONALD ROOTS, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.

(Super. Ct. No. 08F04879)

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

P. v. Roots CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

A jury convicted defendant Donald Roots of three firearm-related offenses and of making criminal threats. The jury also sustained a personal-use-of-a-firearm enhancement but was unable to reach a verdict on a fifth count involving an assault with a vehicle. The trial court sustained a recidivist allegation, after which it imposed a prison sentence of 18 years, four months.

We note the enhancement brought the underlying conviction within the definition of a violent felony (Pen. Code, § 667.5, subd. (c)(8)), limiting defendant's presentence conduct credits to 15 percent of his custody credits. (Id., § 2933.1; unless otherwise specified, statutory references that follow are to the Penal Code.)

Defendant's sole contention on appeal is that the trial court erred in failing to suspend the proceedings a second time to conduct a competency evaluation after his trial attorney expressed doubts about his ability to participate meaningfully in his own defense. (§ 1368.) We affirm the judgment.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Our resolution of defendant's assertion of error does not require us to relate the circumstances underlying his convictions.

Based on the representations of the deputy public defender, in June 2008 Judge Fall suspended these criminal proceedings and appointed two doctors to evaluate defendant's competence to stand trial. When the two doctors came to different conclusions, the court appointed a third doctor.

The July 18, 2008 report stated the referral was based on defense counsel's observation of defendant's abrupt change in demeanor. Having until then been supremely self-assured, defendant was now so emotionally dejected that he was almost unable to communicate with counsel. After two interviews, the doctor did not find any cognitive problems with defendant other than narcissistic elements in his personality that led him to an exaggerated perspective of himself and events. According to the doctor, the emotional breakdown leading to his inability to communicate was likely the result of a lapse in his "narcissistic defenses," although those had "reconstituted."

The July 24 report stated this second doctor had one interview with defendant. The doctor found that defendant's demeanor was inappropriately euphoric and his responses were also evasive, making it difficult to have a coherent dialogue with him. The doctor believed defendant was in the manic phase of a bipolar disorder, and, while defendant was able to understand the proceedings, he was not capable of assisting counsel competently because he could not communicate coherently.

The third doctor's report was based on a two and one-half-hour interview with defendant. Defendant's demeanor was normal, if playful; he did not have any apparent cognitive difficulties, and he communicated clearly. Defendant expressed the opinion that his trial attorney had requested competency proceedings only to have time to work on another case.

Based on the three reports, Judge Winn concluded that defendant was competent to stand trial and reinstated the proceedings. Defendant immediately made what was apparently his fourth motion for substitution of appointed counsel. The substance of the motion is not at issue, so we note only that the complaints were unreasonable and defendant's comments do not appear irrational. When Judge Winn denied the motion, defendant asserted his intent to represent himself. After advising defendant of the hazards of self-representation and determining that his decision was voluntary and informed, Judge Winn relieved the public defender.

At the conclusion of the subsequent preliminary hearing held in October 2008, defendant requested appointment of counsel. The court appointed a panel attorney, Donna Hooper, who represented defendant thereafter except for a period after trial when defendant again elected self-representation, but then agreed to the panel attorney's reappointment.

In January 2009, defendant filed a motion for substitution of counsel. Judge Winn denied the motion.

In May 2009, defendant once again moved for substitution of counsel having complained in a letter to Judge Winn in April 2009 of a "lack of transparency" in dealing with Hooper. As the substance of these complaints is not here at issue, we again note simply that they were unreasonable, e.g., Hooper's failure to move to suppress evidence, to investigate witnesses, to share discovery, and her insistence that defendant accept a plea. Defendant's comments about the case at this hearing again appear rational.

During the hearing Hooper noted defendant had not seemed to appreciate his potential prison sentence, and when she brought him word of a possible offer of a 100-month sentence he stopped speaking to her entirely. She claimed this gave her a doubt about his competence to assist her in his defense, because "several conversations" led her to believe he had delusions about himself, his history, and "perhaps" the case and he therefore could not sit down and "face reality" without "decompensat[ing]." Judge Winn noted his ongoing history of hearings with defendant; after observing defendant at the present hearing, he did not find a basis for declaring a doubt about competence. Judge Winn declined defense counsel's offer to supply additional anecdotes in chambers, denying both the motion to substitute counsel and to suspend the proceedings for psychological evaluations.

Defendant does not identify any other portions of the record that are pertinent to the issue of his competence, nor any subsequent instance in which defense counsel expressed any doubts as to his competence. We therefore confine our analysis to the evidence above. (Duarte v. Chino Community Hospital (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 849, 856.)

DISCUSSION

Defendant correctly identifies the question before us; that is, whether the trial court was presented with "a substantial change of circumstances" or new evidence that would call the previous finding of competence into question. (People v. Marshall (1997) 15 Cal.4th 1, 33 (Marshall).) He argues that because trial counsel's opinion is entitled to "some" weight and she "was in the best position" to assess defendant's competence and given the pretrial report that found defendant to be bipolar, there was evidence sufficient to trigger a competency hearing, especially in light of her offer to provide additional information to the court in chambers.

To satisfy due process, a defendant cannot be subject to trial without a rational understanding of the nature of the proceedings against him, and the ability to consult effectively with counsel in preparing the defense. (Indiana v. Edwards (2008) 554 U.S. 164, 170 [171 L.Ed.2d 345]; People v. Taylor (2009) 47 Cal.4th 850, 881.) A trial court must suspend proceedings and conduct a competency hearing whenever there is "substantial evidence of incompetence, that is, evidence that raises a reasonable . . . doubt" as to a defendant's competence to stand trial. (People v. Rogers (2006) 39 Cal.4th 826, 847 (Rogers).) Given its opportunity to observe a defendant, a trial court is entitled to deference in deciding whether the circumstances called for a competency hearing, but the failure to hold a hearing in the presence of substantial evidence of incompetence requires reversal of the judgment. (Ibid.) In the absence such substantial evidence of incompetence, defense counsel's doubt about a defendant's competence is not sufficient evidence to compel a hearing. (People v. Rodrigues (1994) 8 Cal.4th 1060, 1112.)

Facts that are unrelated to a defendant's understanding of the proceedings or ability to assist counsel are irrelevant. (People v. Ramos (2004) 34 Cal.4th 494, 508.) "[A] defendant must exhibit more than bizarre, paranoid behavior [or] strange words . . . ." (Ibid.; accord Marshall, supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 33.) Defense counsel's failure to renew the issue, while not determinative, gives some support to the trial court's ruling on the question. (Rogers, supra, 39 Cal.4th at p. 848.)

The record is devoid of a substantial change of circumstances or new evidence at the time of the May 2009 hearing that would call the previous finding of competence into question. There never was a showing that defendant was unable to comprehend the nature of the proceedings; rather, his trial counsel had doubts only about his ability to assist competently in his own defense. There had been evidence previously of his narcissistic traits that led him to distorted insights regarding his history, abilities, and circumstances. While one doctor found defendant to be bipolar and unable to communicate clearly, two others did not agree with this evaluation of defendant's behavior and did not have any similar problem in conversing with defendant. That defendant's personality traits might make him stubborn to his own detriment, or become overwhelmed when forced to face reality, is not substantial evidence of his incompetence where the previous evaluations did not consider this behavior to render him incompetent to assist in his own defense.

Anything Hooper reported at the May 2009 hearing was consistent with this previous evidence and did not represent anything new. Defendant was simply adamant that he would prevail at trial regardless of Hooper's assessment of the case, and therefore was unwilling to entertain any plea offer, no matter how beneficial it might have been. Similarly, her report of his self-assessments being at odds with reality does not amount to evidence outside the scope of the earlier evaluations.

As for the trial court's refusal of Hooper's offer to provide further anecdotes, whether these were in the same vein or were reports of episodes of aberrant behavior, these are also within the scope of the earlier evaluation about the effects of defendant's narcissistic personality and the occasions on which reality would overcome his defenses. The earlier evaluation had nonetheless concluded this did not render him incompetent to assist in his own defense. We may consider the fact that Hooper did not report any further concerns about defendant's competence to the court over the course of the trial or in the post-trial proceedings, as further support for our conclusion here.

In the absence of any substantial evidence of changed or new circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to initiate competency proceedings. We therefore reject defendant's claim.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed.

We concur: RAYE , P. J. HOCH , J.

20110801

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