Santa Clara County Superior Court No.: C9922421 The Honorable Philip H. Pennypacker
Attorney for Defendant and Appellant Rick J. Wilson: Michael Satris under appointment by the Court of Appeal for Appellant
Attorneys for Plaintiff and Respondent The People: Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General Gerald A. Engler, Senior Assistant Attorney General Stan Helfman,
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Christopher J. Wei, Deputy Attorney General
This case concerns the scope of a court’s power to increase a defendant’s sentence based on the record of a prior conviction. The trial court initially sentenced defendant Rick J. Wilson to a term of 25 years to life for felony drunk driving — his third strike under the “Three Strikes” law. The court found the first two strikes based on the record of a prior drunk driving offense from 1993. In that case, Wilson caused an accident while driving drunk, injuring one passenger and killing another. He pleaded no contest to (1) causing injury while driving intoxicated, and (2) gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. The court examined the transcript of the 1993 preliminary hearing and found Wilson had “personally inflicted” great bodily injury on both victims, making each offense a separate strike.
After several appeals, a federal court vacated Wilson’s sentence because the trial court had violated Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466 (Apprendi). On remand, the state trial court struck the first strike, but left intact the second strike that was based on the manslaughter offense. The court resentenced Wilson as a second strike offender to a six-year term, double the three-year upper term for felony drunk driving. On appeal, Wilson claims the trial court’s finding of “personal infliction” for the second strike violated his right to a jury trial.
We hold the trial court erred by doubling defendant’s sentence based on the strike for the prior manslaughter conviction. Wilson never admitted to conduct sufficient to establish personal infliction in that 1993 manslaughter offense. To the contrary, he disputed the relevant facts of his conduct. The trial court could not have found the offense to be a strike without resolving this factual dispute. By doing so, the court violated federal law under Apprendi and state law under People v. McGee (2006) 38 Cal.4th 682 (McGee).
I. Factual and Procedural Background
The proceedings below concerned two felony drunk driving incidents — the first in Nevada County in 1993, and the second in Santa Clara County in 1999. In sentencing Wilson for the 1999 offense, the trial court looked to the record of the 1993 offense and found two prior “serious felonies” qualifying as strikes, or “strike priors” under the Three Strikes law. (Pen. Code, §§ 667, subds. (b)-(i), 1170.12.) The court sentenced Wilson as a third strike offender to a term of 25 years to life.
After exhausting his state court appeals, Wilson petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. A federal district court initially denied his petition, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. (Wilson v. Knowles (9th Cir. 2011) 638 F.3d 1213 (Wilson v. Knowles).) The district court then vacated his sentence. On remand for resentencing, the state trial court struck one of the two strike priors, but not the other. Accordingly, the court sentenced Wilson as a second strike offender to a term of six years. Wilson appeals this sentence, claiming the trial court erred by increasing his sentence based on the remaining strike prior.
B. The 1993 Drunk Driving Offense
In 1993, Wilson, driving while intoxicated, caused an accident resulting in injuries to one passenger and the death of another. At the preliminary hearing, witnesses testified to the following:
Wilson was driving eastbound on Interstate 80 from Truckee to Reno on the morning of September 8. The highway had four lanes — two lanes in each direction, separated by a median. The road was flat and dry, with a slight curve to the right. Wilson’s girlfriend, Debra Horvat, rode in the front passenger’s seat. They had picked up a hitchhiker, John Haessly, who sat in the rear seat.
A motorist behind them saw the car traveling in the left lane at about 85 miles per hour. The car moved into the right lane, then turned back across the left lane and onto the dirt of the median. The car then overcorrected and veered right, across the eastbound lanes, and off the right side of the road, where it flipped over. The motorist drove past the scene to a weigh station where he reported the accident. Tire tracks on the median and skid marks on the road corroborated the motorist’s account of the accident.
Another motorist stopped at the scene after spotting Wilson trying to flag down help. California Highway Patrol Officer David Cox testified that according to this second motorist, Wilson stated, “The bitch grabbed the wheel. What did she grab the wheel for?” The motorist also reported the statement to another officer on the scene.
Horvat was found in the car with the right front passenger’s seat belt wrapped around her neck. Haessly was found lying in a field between the car and the highway, dead from blunt force trauma.
Officer Cox interviewed Wilson at the hospital about an hour after the accident. Wilson appeared intoxicated. He was belligerent and exhibited mood swings. When Officer Cox asked if he had been drinking, Wilson answered, “Yes. All of us were.” Wilson denied that he had been driving. He claimed Horvat was driving. Wilson said he had been in the back seat, and that he was thrown from the car. He also claimed he had been wearing a seat belt. Wilson then ended the interview. A blood sample taken at the hospital contained 0.21 percent alcohol.
Officer Cox attempted to interview Horvat in the hospital emergency room, but Horvat could not speak. She was in pain and had an oxygen mask over her mouth. Officer Cox instructed her to nod her head “yes” or “no” in response to his questions. When he asked if she had been driving, she shook her head to indicate “no.” When he asked if Wilson had been driving, she nodded “yes.” When he asked if Haessly had been in the back seat, she nodded “yes.”
Horvat also testified at the preliminary hearing. The car, a 1991 Ford Tempo, belonged to her. She and Wilson had been driving around the area since 8:00 p.m. the night before the accident. She gave the keys to Wilson to drive because she did not like driving in the mountains and she “panicked.” As the sun was coming up, they pulled into a field to rest, and she fell asleep. She slept soundly because she had been awake for 24 hours. Her next memory was that of waking up in the hospital. She did not recall the accident. She did not recall picking up Haessly, and she did not recall Officer Cox questioning her. She denied that she had been drinking alcohol, and she denied seeing Wilson drink alcohol. She testified that there was no alcohol in the car at any time. She knew that a claim had been brought against her insurance company. She also knew that she could be sued personally.
In closing argument, Wilson argued the evidence was insufficient to establish probable cause for the charges against him. Wilson specifically challenged the evidence of causation, arguing that statements at the scene of the accident showed Horvat had grabbed the steering wheel, thereby causing the accident. Regarding Horvat’s testimony that she was asleep at the time, Wilson challenged her credibility given that she knew she could be found liable for her role in the accident. The court, discounting ...