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People v. Superior Court (Alfredo Cervantes)

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

April 24, 2014

THE PEOPLE, Petitioner,


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Tulare County No. VCF036841-95. Joseph A. Kalashian, Judge.

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Tim Ward, District Attorney, Anthony Fultz, Assistant District Attorney, Jill Icenhower, Douglas Rodgers, and Samantha Arnerich, Deputy District Attorneys, for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Michael B. Sheltzer, Public Defender, Lisa Bertolino, Assistant Public Defender, and Angela Marie Krueger, Deputy Public Defender, for Real Party in Interest.




“On November 6, 2012, the voters approved Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012, which amended [Penal Code] sections 667 and 1170.12 and added [Penal Code] section 1170.126 (hereafter the Act).[1] The Act changes the requirements for sentencing a third strike offender to an indeterminate term of 25 years to life imprisonment. Under the original version of the three strikes law a recidivist with two or more prior strikes who is convicted of any new felony is subject to an indeterminate life sentence. The Act diluted the three strikes law by reserving the life sentence for cases where the current crime is a serious or violent felony or the prosecution has pled and proved an enumerated disqualifying factor. In all other cases, the recidivist will be sentenced as a second strike offender. (§§ 667, 1170.12.) The Act also created a postconviction release proceeding whereby a prisoner who is serving an indeterminate life sentence imposed pursuant to the three strikes law for a crime that is not a serious or violent felony and who is not disqualified, may have his or her sentence recalled and be sentenced as a second strike offender unless the court determines that resentencing would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. (§ 1170.126.)” (People v. Yearwood (2013) 213 Cal.App.4th 161, 167-168 [151 Cal.Rptr.3d 901].)

Shortly after the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (the Act or Proposition 36) went into effect, real party in interest Alfredo Cervantes, an inmate serving a 50-years-to-life term following conviction of felonies that were not

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violent (as defined by § 667.5, subd. (c)) or serious (as defined by § 1192.7, subd. (c)), filed a petition for recall of sentence, seeking resentencing under the Act. The trial court determined Cervantes qualified (was eligible) for resentencing and set the matter for further hearing on the issue of whether resentencing Cervantes would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. The People now seek review of the trial court’s eligibility determination.

In the published portion of this opinion, we hold that an inmate serving an indeterminate life term under the three strikes law may be found to have been “armed with a firearm” in the commission of his or her current offense(s), so as to be disqualified from resentencing under the Act, even if he or she did not carry the firearm on his or her person. In the unpublished portion, we hold the People are entitled to writ review of the trial court’s contrary conclusion. Accordingly, we grant the People’s petition for a writ of prohibition and/or mandate.


On September 11, 1995, Cervantes sold one ounce of heroin to an undercover narcotics officer. The sale took place in front of Cervantes’s home. Cervantes also negotiated to sell the officer 10 pounds of methamphetamine and another four ounces of heroin. On September 21, 1995, a search warrant was executed at Cervantes’s residence. When officers entered, they found Cervantes standing inside the doorway. Heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and scales were found in the kitchen. A loaded semiautomatic handgun was found in the adjacent bedroom, in a purse belonging to Cervantes’s wife. The gun was about eight feet from the heroin. Cervantes admitted the firearm and some of the drugs were his.

In March 1996, a jury convicted Cervantes of selling heroin (Health & Saf. Code, § 11352, subd. (a); count 1), possessing heroin for sale (id., § 11351; count 2), being a felon in possession of a firearm (former § 12021, subd. (a)(1), see now § 29800, subd. (a); count 3), and making a building available for preparing or storing heroin (Health & Saf. Code, § 11366.5, subd. (a); count 5). Jurors found Cervantes was personally armed with a firearm in the commission of count 2. (§ 12022, subd. (c).) Cervantes was further found to have suffered two prior “strike” convictions. (§ 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(A).) On April 25, 1996, he was sentenced to prison for a total unstayed term of 50 years to life plus four years.

On November 7, 2012, Cervantes petitioned the trial court for a recall of sentence and a new sentencing hearing pursuant to section 1170.126. The People opposed the petition on the ground Cervantes did not qualify because,

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in connection with his current offenses, the prosecution pled and proved Cervantes was armed with a firearm. Cervantes argued: (1) The electorate — most of whom were lay persons — would have understood the phrase “armed with a firearm” to refer to a crime in which the offender was carrying a firearm, not one in which the firearm was in a separate room; (2) Since the firearm was not in the same room as the heroin Cervantes was convicted of possessing, the jury necessarily relied on constructive possession in order to find the section 12022, subdivision (c) allegation to be true; and (3) Since the “armed” exclusion included in Proposition 36 was narrower than the “armed” element of the enhancement, the jury’s finding under section 12022, subdivision (c) did not disqualify Cervantes from relief under section 1170.126.

On March 21, 2013, a hearing was held on the petition. After argument on the issue, the court stated: “I’m going to accept the defendant’s position … and find that armed for purposes of Prop 36 means actual possession rather than constructive possession of the firearm.… So I’m going to find that Mr. Cervantes … [is] not excluded.” The matter was then set for a resentencing hearing.

The People petitioned this court for a writ of prohibition and/or mandate overturning the trial court’s ruling. They further requested that we stay the resentencing hearing. On April 9, 2013, we issued an order to show cause why the relief prayed for should not be granted, and stayed proceedings in the trial court pending our further order.


I. The People are entitled to writ review of the trial court’s ruling[*].

II. Cervantes was “armed with a firearm” within the meaning of the Act, and so was disqualified from resentencing.

Insofar as we are concerned, Cervantes’s current conviction was for a violation of Health and Safety Code section 11351, during the commission of which he was “personally armed with a firearm” in violation of section 12022, subdivision (c).[6] A person is “armed with a firearm” within the meaning of

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section 12022 if he or she “has the specified weapon available for use, either offensively or defensively. [Citations.]” (People v. Bland (1995) 10 Cal.4th 991, 997 [43 Cal.Rptr.2d 77, 898 P.2d 391].) Although section 12022, subdivision (c)’s requirement that the defendant be “personally armed” limits liability to one who actually commits the prohibited conduct, as opposed to imposing vicarious liability (People v. Bland, supra, at p. 998, fn. 3; contrast § 12022, subd. (a)(1)), it does not require that the defendant physically carry the firearm on his or her person (People v. Smith (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 196, 204 [11 Cal.Rptr.2d 645]; People v. Gonzales (1992) 8 Cal.App.4th 1658, 1661-1663 [11 Cal.Rptr.2d 267]; People v. Mendival (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 562, 573-574 [3 Cal.Rptr.2d 566]; People v. Superior Court (Pomilia)(1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 1464, 1471-1472 [1 Cal.Rptr.2d 386]).[7]

The question before us is whether, having been “personally armed with a firearm” in the commission of his current offense within the meaning of section 12022, subdivision (c), Cervantes “was armed with a firearm” within the meaning of sections 667, subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iii) and 1170.12, subdivision (c)(2)(C)(iii). If he was not, then he is qualified for resentencing under the Act. (§ 1170.126, subd. (e)(2).) As previously described, the trial court ruled that “armed with a firearm” for purposes of the Act means actual possession, i.e., carrying the firearm on one’s person. The issue is one of the interpretation of a statute and its applicability to a given situation, a question of law we review independently. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1332 [104 Cal.Rptr.3d 219, 223 P.3d 77]; Southern California Edison Co. v. State Board of Equalization (1972) 7 Cal.3d 652, 659, fn. 8 [102 Cal.Rptr. 766, 498 P.2d 1014]; see People v. Cromer (2001) 24 Cal.4th 889, 894 [103 Cal.Rptr.2d 23, 15 P.3d 243].)[8]

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“In interpreting a voter initiative like [the Act], we apply the same principles that govern statutory construction. [Citation.]” (People v. Rizo (2000) 22 Cal.4th 681, 685 [94 Cal.Rptr.2d 375, 996 P.2d 27].) "'The fundamental purpose of statutory construction is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citations.]’” (Horwich v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 272, 276 [87 Cal.Rptr.2d 222, 980 P.2d 927].) "In determining intent, we look first to the words themselves. [Citations.] When the language is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for construction. [Citations.] When the language is susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation, however, we look to a variety of extrinsic aids, including the ostensible objects to be achieved, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history, public policy, contemporaneous administrative construction, and the statutory scheme of which the statute is a part. [Citations.]” (People v. Woodhead (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1002, 1007-1008 [239 Cal.Rptr. 656, 741 P.2d 154].) We also “‘refer to other indicia of the voters’ intent, particularly the analyses and arguments contained in the official ballot pamphlet.’ [Citation.]” (People v. Rizo, supra, 22 Cal.4th at p. 685.) “Using these extrinsic aids, we ‘select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the [electorate], with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and avoid an interpretation that would lead to absurd consequences.’ [Citation.]” (People v. Sinohui (2002) 28 Cal.4th 205, 212 [120 Cal.Rptr.2d 783, 47 P.3d 629].) " ' "The meaning of a statute may not be determined from a single word or sentence; the words must be construed in context, and provisions relating to the same subject matter must be harmonized to the extent possible. [Citation.]”’” (People v. Mohammed (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 920. 928 [76 Cal.Rptr.3d 372].) " '[W]e do not construe statutes in isolation, but rather read every statute “with reference to the entire scheme of law of which it is part so that the whole may be harmonized and retain effectiveness.” [Citation.]’ [Citation.]” (Horwich v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.4th at p. 276.)

The People contend the language at issue in sections 667, subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iii) and 1170.12, subdivision (c)(2)(C)(iii) — “During the commission of the current offense, the defendant . . . was armed with a firearm” (italics added) — “is clear on its face and has no ambiguity.” It can be argued, however, that the words are susceptible of two reasonable interpretations: the broad definition espoused by the People (the defendant had the firearm available for use, either offensively or defensively) and the narrower one endorsed by Cervantes (the defendant carried the firearm on his or her person). “The word ‘[armed]’ conveys no self-evident meaning; its import must be gathered from the overall context in which it appears. [Citation.]” (People v. Woodhead, supra, 43 Cal.3d at p. 1008.) When “the words themselves provide no definitive answer, we . . . look to extrinsic sources.” (Ibid.)

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Cervantes says that because our aim is to interpret the voters’ intent, we must give the language “its ordinary meaning as understood by the electorate, ” i.e., “the average voter, unschooled in the patois of criminal law.…” (Robert L. v. Superior Court (2003) 30 Cal.4th 894, 901, 902 [135 Cal.Rptr.2d 30, 69 P.3d 951], italics added.) Based on his view of “common lay person understanding, ” which he supports with various dictionary definitions, Cervantes says the electorate understood being “armed with a firearm” to occur where the defendant was carrying a firearm on his or her person while in the perpetration of a crime.

For the most part, however, the dictionary definitions are not so limited.[9] For instance, the first definition of “armed” given by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1986) at page 119 is “furnished with weapons of offense or defense.” The American Heritage Dictionary (2d college ed. 1985) at page 128 defines “armed” as “[e]quipped with weapons.” As commonly understood, the state of being furnished or equipped with weapons is broader than carrying a weapon on one’s person.

Moreover, Cervantes’s argument ignores the fact it has long been settled that “[t]he enacting body is deemed to be aware of existing laws and judicial constructions in effect at the time legislation is enacted” (People v. Weidert (1985) 39 Cal.3d 836, 844 [218 Cal.Rptr. 57, 705 P.2d 380]), "and to have enacted or amended a statute in light thereof” (People v. Harrison (1989) 48 Cal.3d 321, 329 [256 Cal.Rptr. 401, 768 P.2d 1078]). "This principle applies to legislation enacted by initiative. [Citation.]” (People v. Weidert, supra, at p. 844.) Indeed, where, as here, “the language of a statute uses terms that have been judicially construed, ‘“the presumption is almost irresistible”’ that the terms have been used ‘“in the precise and technical sense which had been placed upon them by the courts.”’ [Citations.] This principle [likewise] applies to legislation adopted through the initiative process. [Citation.]” (Id. at pp. 845-846.)

In enacting Proposition 36, the voters are thus deemed to have been aware of the longstanding statutory and judicially construed definition of “armed with a firearm.” Yet they failed to expressly limit the term when amending sections 667, subdivision (e) and 1170.12, subdivision (c) and enacting section 1170.126. This strongly suggests they intended to disqualify from resentencing those inmates who had a firearm available for use, either offensively or defensively, and not merely those who carried a firearm on their person. (See Robert S. v. Superior Court (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 1417, 1421-1422 [12 Cal.Rptr.2d 489].)

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A conclusion “armed with a firearm, ” as used in sections 667, subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iii) and 1170.12, subdivision (c)(2)(C)(iii), and as disqualifies an inmate from resentencing pursuant to section 1170.126, subdivision (e)(2), extends to situations in which the defendant had the firearm available for use, either offensively or defensively, is supported by an examination of the statutory scheme as a whole. The purpose of the three strikes law has been variously stated as being “‘to ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent felony offenses’” (In re Young (2004) 32 Cal.4th 900, 909 [12 Cal.Rptr.3d 48, 87 P.3d 797]) and “to promote the state’s compelling interest in the protection of public safety and in punishing recidivism” (People v. Gipson (2004) 117 Cal.App.4th 1065, 1070 [12 Cal.Rptr.3d 478]). Although the Act “diluted” the three strikes law somewhat (People v. Yearwood, supra, 213 Cal.App.4th at p. 167), “[e]nhancing public safety was a key purpose of the Act” (id. at p. 175). Moreover, section 12022 was enacted “to deter those engaged in felonies from creating a risk of death or injury by having a firearm at the scene of the crime. [Citation.]” (People v. Bland, supra, 10 Cal.4th at p. 1001.)

That such a construction of the term comports with voters’ intent is supported by the ballot materials related to Proposition 36. The “OFFICIAL TITLE AND SUMMARY” stated in part that the initiative “[c]ontinues to impose life sentence penalty if third strike conviction was for certain nonserious, non-violent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession.” (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec. (Nov. 6, 2012) official title and summary, p. 48, italics added.) In summarizing then-existing law, the legislative analysis of Proposition 36 listed, as examples of violent felonies, murder, robbery, and rape; as felonies that were serious but not violent, assault with intent to commit robbery; and as felonies not classified as violent or serious, grand theft (not involving a firearm) and possession of a controlled substance. (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec., supra, analysis of Prop. 36 by Legis. Analyst, p. 48.) In summarizing how the initiative measure would shorten sentences for some third strikers, the Legislative Analyst explained there would be some exceptions to the shorter sentence: “Specifically, the measure requires that if the offender has committed certain new or prior offenses, including some drug-, sex-, and gun-related felonies, he or she would still be subject to a life sentence under the three strikes law.” (Id. at p. 49, italics added.) The legislative analysis further described how certain current third strikers would be resentenced, but explained that Proposition 36 “limits eligibility for resentencing to third strikers whose current offense is nonserious, non-violent, and who have not committed specified current and

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prior offenses, such as certain drug-, sex-, and gun-related felonies.” (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec., supra, at p. 50, italics added.)

In their “ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF PROPOSITION 36, ” the measure’s proponents spoke in terms of making the punishment fit the crime, saving California money, and making room in prison for dangerous felons. (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec., supra, argument in favor of Prop. 36, p. 52.) In their “REBUTTAL TO ARGUMENT AGAINST PROPOSITION 36, ” the proponents stated, in part: “Prop. 36 requires that murderers, rapists, child molesters, and other dangerous criminals serve their full sentences. [¶] … [¶] Today, dangerous criminals are being released early from prison because jails are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders who pose no risk to the public. Prop. 36 prevents dangerous criminals from being released early. People convicted of shoplifting a pair of socks, stealing bread or baby formula don’t deserve life sentences.” (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec., supra, rebuttal to argument against Prop. 36, p. 53, italics added & omitted.)

Section 1 of the proposed law found and declared:

“The People enact the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 to restore the original intent of California’s Three Strikes law — imposing life sentences for dangerous criminals like rapists, murderers, and child molesters.

“This act will:

“(1) Require that murderers, rapists, and child molesters serve their full sentences — they will receive life sentences, even if they are convicted of a new minor third strike crime.

“(2) Restore the Three Strikes law to the public’s original understanding by requiring life sentences only when a defendant’s current conviction is for a violent or serious crime.

“(3) Maintain that repeat offenders convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes like shoplifting and simple drug possession will receive twice the normal sentence instead of a life sentence.

“(4) Save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year for at least 10 years. The state will no longer pay for housing or long-term health care for elderly, low-risk, non-violent inmates serving life sentences for minor crimes.

“(5) Prevent the early release of dangerous criminals who are currently being released early because jails and prisons are overcrowded with low-risk,

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non-violent inmates serving life sentences for petty crimes.” (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec., supra, text of proposed law, § 1, p. 105, italics added.)

The foregoing materials expressly distinguished between dangerous criminals who were deserving of life sentences, and petty criminals (such as shoplifters and those convicted of simple drug possession) who posed little or no risk to the public and did not deserve life sentences. We do not view the electorate as deeming someone with a firearm available for use, either offensively or defensively, in the commission of a felony to be nondangerous or to pose little risk to the public.

Cervantes observes that the Act refers to specific statutory definitions in some places (e.g., §§ 667, subd. (e)(2)(C)(iv), 1170.12, subd. (c)(2)(C)(iv)), but not in the context of the “arming” definition. He argues this implies the electorate intended the common, lay definition for the term. We disagree. There are multiple statutes in this state’s codes that refer to arming. (E.g., §§ 1203.06, subd. (a)(2), 12022; Health & Saf. Code, § 11370.1, subd. (a).) Some expressly define the term (e.g., § 1203.06, subd. (b)(3); Health & Saf. Code, § 11370.1, subd. (a), 2d par.), while others rely on judicial construction (e.g., § 12022; People v. Bland, supra, 10 Cal.4th at p. 997). By not specifically including any, the electorate excluded none. (See Gikas v. Zolin (1993) 6 Cal.4th 841, 852 [25 Cal.Rptr.2d 500, 863 P.2d 745] [under canon of construction expressio unius est exclusio alterius, expression of some things in statute necessarily means exclusion of other things not expressed].)

We conclude the trial court erred, as a matter of law, in finding Cervantes qualified for resentencing under the Act. The People are entitled to the relief they seek.


The “PETITION FOR WRIT OF PROHIBITION AND/OR MANDATE” is granted. Let a writ of mandate issue directing the Superior Court of Tulare County to vacate the order filed in action No. VCF036841-95 on March 21, 2013, finding real party in interest not excluded from resentencing under Proposition 36, and to enter a new and different order denying real party in interest’s “PETITION FOR RECALL OF SENTENCE.”

The order filed on April 9, 2013, staying the proceedings in Tulare County Superior Court case No. VCF036841-95 shall remain in effect only until this

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opinion is final in all courts in this state or the Supreme Court grants a hearing herein, whichever shall first occur. Thereafter said stay order is vacated and said stay is dissolved.

Levy, Acting P.J., and LaPorte, J.[*] concurred.

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