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People v. Watts

California Court of Appeals, First District, First Division

August 8, 2016

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
KELLYMAY RACHELL WATTS, Defendant and Appellant.

         Superior Court Mendocino County No. SCUKCRCR1580346 Honorable John A. Behnke Judge.

          Counsel for Appellant: Randall H. Conner, under appointment by the First District Appellate Project

          Counsel for Respondent: Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General; Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General; Huy T. Luong, Deputy Attorney General

          Humes, P.J.

         Defendant Kellymay Watts appeals from an order granting probation following her plea of no contest to possession of methamphetamine for sale. Her appellate counsel asked this court for an independent review of the record to determine whether there are any arguable issues. (People v. Wende (1979) 25 Cal.3d 436.) We requested briefing on whether the criminal laboratory analysis (crime-lab) fee imposed under Health and Safety Code[1] section 11372.5 is subject to penalty assessments, which are proportionately levied on some monetary charges imposed on criminal defendants. We did so because a recent decision from the Appellate Division of the Nevada County Superior Court, People v. Moore (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th Supp. 10 (Moore) concluded, contrary to the weight of authority, that the crime-lab fee is not subject to penalty assessments. Although we decline to adopt Moore’s rationale, we agree with its holding that the crime-lab fee is not subject to penalty assessments. As a result, we order the penalty assessments imposed on the crime-lab fee stricken but otherwise affirm.

         I.

         Factual and Procedural

         Background

         In January 2015, a Fort Bragg police officer found Watts in possession of 3.86 grams of methamphetamine and 1.16 grams of heroin, as well as assorted drug paraphernalia.[2] “[N]umerous text messages... indicating sales of controlled substances” were found on Watts’s cell phone. Watts was charged with a felony count of possession of heroin for sale.[3] Under a plea agreement, she pleaded no contest to that count, which was amended to refer to methamphetamine instead of heroin.

         The trial court suspended imposition of the sentence and placed Watts on probation for 36 months subject to various conditions, including that she serve 120 days in county jail. Among other fines and fees, the court imposed “the $190 [crime-lab] fee under [section] 11372.5 of the Health and Safety Code, ” and an addendum to the probation order stated that the $190 “[f]ee imposed include[d] penalty assessments and surcharges as required.” Watts did not object to the imposition of the crime-lab fee or the associated assessments.[4]

         II.

         Discussion

         Watts argues on appeal that the $50 crime-lab fee authorized by section 11372.5 is not subject to penalty assessments and that the trial court therefore erred by imposing an additional $140. We agree.

         A. Monetary Charges Imposed in Criminal Cases.

         We begin by describing three different categories of monetary charges that may be imposed on a criminal defendant and that are relevant to the issues in this appeal.[5] We do so because these categories are ill-defined. As one justice aptly observed in 2009, the Legislature has created an “increasingly complex system of fines, fees, and penalties, ” leaving it “doubtful that criminal trial lawyers and trial court judges have the ability to keep track of the myriad [] charges that now attach to criminal convictions.” (People v. Castellanos (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1524, 1533-1534 (conc. opn. of Kriegler, J.).) This justice correctly predicted that “[t]he system, as it exists, is likely to only become more complicated in the immediate future.” (Ibid.; see People v. Hamed (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 928, 939 [recognizing increasing difficulty of accurately imposing penalty assessments].) Making sense of the system is particularly difficult because the Legislature has described criminal monetary charges with a variety of terms, such as fine, fee, assessment, increment, and penalty, while sometimes assigning different meanings to the same term.

         The first category of monetary charges that may be imposed includes charges to punish the defendant for the crime. (People v. Sorenson (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 612, 617.) These charges are often referred to as base fines (see ibid.), and throughout this opinion we shall refer to them as such with the understanding that statutes sometimes use the term fine with a broader meaning. Trial courts often have discretion over whether and in what amount to impose base fines.

         The second category of charges that may be imposed includes charges to cover a particular governmental program or administrative cost. (See, e.g., Pen. Code, § 1465.8, subds. (a) & (b); People v. Alford (2007) 42 Cal.4th 749, 756 [discussing court security fee under Penal Code section 1465.8].) These charges are usually referred to as fees and, as with base fines, trial courts often have discretion over whether to impose them.

         The third category of charges includes penalty assessments, which, when applicable, inflate the total sum imposed on the defendant by increasing certain charges by percentage increments. All current penalty assessments are legislatively expressed as a certain dollar amount “for every ten dollars ($10), or part of ($10), ” for the particular fine, penalty, or forfeiture that is subject to the assessments. (E.g., Pen. Code, § 1464, subd. (a)(1).) Thus, for example, if the base fine is $100 and the penalty assessment is $2 for every $10 imposed, the penalty assessment increases the defendant’s base fine by $20, or 20 percent. If the same penalty assessment is imposed on a base fine of $105, the penalty assessment is $22, and the ...


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