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People v. Covarrubias

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

May 12, 2015

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
JUAN ANTONIO COVARRUBIAS, Defendant and Appellant.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Riverside County, No. RIF1201945 Richard T. Fields, Judge.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Nancy L. Tetreault, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Anthony Da Silva and Peter Quon, Jr., Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

OPINION

BENKE, Acting P. J.

A jury convicted defendant and appellant Juan Antonio Covarrubias of second degree implied malice murder (Pen. Code, § 187). The court sentenced Covarrubias to prison for 15 years to life.

Covarrubias appeals, contending the court prejudicially erred when it refused to exclude certain portions of the testimony of two employees of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Each of the MADD employees testified about various administrative matters pertaining to MADD, including victim impact panels, and, as relevant to this appeal, their own personal stories of tragedy related to drunk driving accidents (hereafter personal-tragedy testimony). Covarrubias alternatively contends the court erred by instructing the jury with CALCRIM No. 224, Circumstantial Evidence: Sufficiency of Evidence, instead of CALCRIM No. 225, Circumstantial Evidence: Intent or Mental State.

We conclude the court erred when it found the personal-tragedy testimony relevant under Evidence Code[1] section 350 and when it found under section 352 that such testimony was not substantially outweighed by its prejudicial

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effect. However, on this record, we further conclude this error was harmless. Finally, we conclude the court properly instructed the jury with respect to circumstantial evidence offered to prove the elements and intent of the crime. Affirmed.

FACTS

On the morning of March 31, 2012, Covarrubias crashed the SUV he was driving into the rear of victim Gyla Walters's car while she was stopped at an intersection. The impact pushed Walters's car into the intersection and caused her car to burst into flames. Covarrubias and Covarrubias's cousin emerged from the SUV. Covarrubias walked up to another car and offered one of its passengers $500 to drive him away from the scene. The passenger refused and then watched as Covarrubias unsuccessfully attempted to open a door of Walters's burning car. Covarrubias next tried to get into another car, but its driver sped off. Bystanders walked Covarrubias to the side of the road to wait for the police.

Covarrubias approached the first police officer who arrived at the scene and said, "I did it. I ran the red light. I killed – I killed a person." Covarrubias voluntarily put his hands behind his back, and the officer handcuffed him. The officer observed that Covarrubias smelled of alcohol, his speech was slurred, and his eyes were bloodshot. The officer transported Covarrubias to the police station, where his blood was drawn. A forensic toxicologist who analyzed the blood sample estimated Covarrubias's blood-alcohol level at 0.20 percent at the time of the crash.[2]

At the police station, another officer interviewed Covarrubias. Covarrubias admitted driving the SUV that crashed into Walters's car. He told the officer that he went to a nightclub with friends the previous night to celebrate his upcoming birthday. While there, he drank "[t]equila mix, tequila and vodka." He told the officer that he left the nightclub around 2:00 in the morning to go to a party where he drank more alcohol "for several hours." Covarrubias said his cousin warned him not to drive after leaving the party.

A traffic collision investigator testified that when he arrived on scene, Walters's car was burning. He concluded Walters died because of the fire.

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DISCUSSION

I

Admissibility of the ...


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