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People v. McGowan

Superior Court of California, Appellate Division, Los Angeles

March 27, 2015

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
DOUGLAS LEE McGOWAN, Defendant and Respondent.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Airport Trial Court, Jane A. Godfrey, Commissioner.

Marsha Jones Moutrie, City Attorney, City of Santa Monica; Terry L. White, Chief Deputy City Attorney; and Jenna K. Grigsby, Deputy City Attorney, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Ronald L. Brown, Public Defender of Los Angeles County; Albert J. Menaster, Head Deputy Public Defender; and Stephanie Choi, Deputy Public Defender, for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

KUMAR, J.

Penal Code section 991 is the legislative safeguard that allows an in-custody misdemeanant to require the arraigning magistrate to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant has committed a public offense. (Pen. Code, § 991, subd. (a).) If the magistrate finds no such probable cause, the defendant is entitled to a dismissal of the complaint. (Pen. Code, § 991, subd. (d).)[1]

The issue presented is whether section 991 vests the trial court with the discretion to dismiss only some of the charged offenses due to the absence of probable cause, thereby allowing the complaint to survive with the charges that were not dismissed. We conclude, if the court exercises its dismissal discretion under section 991, it must find there is no probable cause to support any charged offense and dismiss the complaint in its entirety. There are two fundamental reasons why the trial court is not vested with the discretion under section 991 to dismiss only some of the charged offenses: (1) the statute only authorizes the trial court to dismiss “the complaint”; and (2) such an application of section 991 would be inconsistent with the purpose of the statute, i.e., to provide a mechanism for screening the complaint to determine whether the misdemeanant’s confinement pending trial is constitutional.

The trial court found there was probable cause to believe defendant committed only one of three charged offenses in the complaint and consequently dismissed the two remaining charges. Section 991 does not sanction such an order. Because the trial court found there was probable cause to believe defendant committed a public offense, it was required to deny the section 991 motion in totality. The trial court’s order dismissing the two charges pursuant to section 991 is reversed.

BACKGROUND

A misdemeanor complaint charged defendant and respondent Douglas Lee McGowan with: (1) camping in a prohibited public place (Santa Monica Mun. Code, § 4.08.095, subd. (a)); (2) possession of a milk crate (§ 565); and (3) loitering under the Santa Monica Municipal Pier (Santa Monica Mun. Code, § 3.36.100). At his arraignment, defendant pled not guilty to the charges and made a motion to dismiss all charges pursuant to section 991.

The trial court considered the police report when assessing the merits of the section 991 motion. The material facts are not in dispute. According to the representations by counsel made at the section 991 motion, the police report indicated defendant was seated under the Santa Monica Municipal Pier in the early morning hours of May 9, 2014. He was wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by personal belongings, including a chair, a military duffel bag and two milk crates. Defendant was arrested after he refused to comply with several commands from Santa Monica police officers to leave the area.

While the motion was orally argued, an issue surfaced about whether section 991 allowed the trial court to dismiss only some charges, thereby leaving the complaint to survive with the remaining charged offenses. Ultimately, the trial court rejected the position taken by plaintiff/appellant (the People of the State of California) that the trial court’s authority to dismiss was limited to the complaint as a whole. The trial court determined there was only probable cause to support the charge in count 2, and dismissed counts 1 and 3.[2] The People appeal the order dismissing counts 1 and 3.[3]

DISCUSSION

Standard of Review and Rules of Statutory Construction

On appeal, questions of law and statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. (People v. Kurtenbach (2012) 204 Cal.App.4th 1264, 1276.) “‘Under settled canons of statutory construction, in construing a statute we ascertain the Legislature’s intent in order to effectuate the law’s purpose. [Citation.] We must look to the statute’s words and give them their usual and ordinary meaning. [Citation.] The statute’s plain meaning controls the court’s interpretation unless its words are ambiguous.’ [Citation.]” (People v. Gonzalez (2008) 43 Cal.4th 1118, 1125-1126.) “‘“If the words of the statute are clear, the court should not add to or alter them to accomplish a purpose that does not appear on the face of the statute or from its legislative history.” [Citations.]’ [Citation.] Put another way, the ascertainment of legislative intent must ‘begin with the language of the statute itself. [Citation.] That is, we look first to the words the Legislature used, giving them their usual and ordinary meaning. [Citation.] ...


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