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People v. Francis A.

California Court of Appeals, First District, Second Division

September 25, 2019

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
FRANCIS A., Defendant and Appellant.

          Superior Court San Mateo County No. 17JW0285 Hon. Elizabeth Lee Judge

          Jonathan Soglin, Paula Rudman, Nathaniel Miller, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.

          Xavier Becerra, Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Jeffrey M. Laurence, Assistant Attorney General, Donna M. Provenzano, Christina vom Saal, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          STEWART, J.

         This case involves the escalation of a school rule-that students may not cut class-into a juvenile wardship proceeding with potential criminal implications. Ultimately, the district attorney filed, and the juvenile court sustained, charges against the student for misdemeanor battery and resisting a peace officer. The evidence does not support the juvenile court’s decision as to either charge. We therefore reverse.


         In a petition filed under Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 et seq. in April 2017, the San Mateo County District Attorney alleged that on April 5, 2017, 17-year-old Francis A. (referred to below and herein as Frank) committed a battery against a peace officer in violation of Penal Code section 243, [1] subdivision (b); resisted a peace officer in his exercise of a public duty in violation of section 148, subdivision (a)(1); and willfully and maliciously disturbed another person by making a loud and unreasonable noise in violation of section 415(2).

         Evidence presented at the jurisdictional hearing indicates that at the beginning of his high school senior year in August 2016, Frank had an encounter with the school’s new resource officer, Officer David Stahler of the Redwood City Police Department, that caused Frank’s father to file an official complaint alleging Stahler had physically handled Frank in an unlawful manner. An investigation followed, and Stahler continued as the school resource officer.

         Other evidence presented at the hearing indicates that one day in April of his senior year, Frank and three other students left a substitute teacher’s class without permission. A campus aide found Frank in the school library sitting at a computer and directed Frank to accompany him to the administrative vice principal’s (AVP) office, where Officer Stahler was located. Students were taken to the AVP office multiple times a day for such things as not being in class. At first, Frank would not go with the aide to the AVP office, so the aide called Stahler on his radio for assistance, which was standard procedure. Frank then followed the aide out of the library but called his father on his cell phone and told the aide he wanted to go to the principal’s office instead. He stopped in the hallway outside the principal’s office, but the office was closed. Frank was for the most part listening to the aide and following his directives other than that he go to the AVP office. After Stahler arrived, events occurred between Stahler and Frank that are the subject of this appeal.

         Stahler’s confusing testimony at the jurisdictional hearing was the principal evidence the People relied on to establish their charges against Frank. Stahler testified that his primary duty as the school resource officer was to assist with exceptional discipline problems and assist with non-students on-campus or if a student was found with illegal substances or violating the Penal Code. Stahler said he met the campus aide and Frank outside the principal’s office, dressed in his police uniform, soon after the aide requested his help. He noticed Frank was using his phone in violation of school policy; other evidence indicates Frank previously had been told he was prohibited from using his phone at school and that prohibited use led to temporary surrender of the phone and, for repeat use, detention. However, Stahler testified, he did not act to enforce the school rules about cell phone use against Frank. Rather, he verbally “encouraged” Frank for a few minutes to do as the aide instructed: “So I started trying to talk to Frank and let him know that, hey, you know, sounds like they would like you to go to the AVP office. I tried to start to-tried to encourage him, using words. Just letting him know, hey, you know, you do need to do what they say. They are telling you to go to the office. And you actually need to put down your phone. You are not supposed to be on the phone.” Stahler also told Frank, “[I]f a police officer tells you that you have to do something, you should do it” and “I want[] to make sure you understand I’m a police officer and I’m asking you to do what I’m telling you right now.” Later in his testimony, Stahler said he tried to “verbally encourage” Frank to cooperate and said to Frank, “if a police officer tells you that you have to do something, you should do it. You do understand that, Frank?”

         Stahler said Frank remained standing outside the principal’s office talking on his phone to his father, with whom Stahler refused to talk despite Frank’s urging. Stahler said he physically “encouraged” Frank to go to the AVP office by putting his left hand on Frank’s back while standing to Frank’s right and exerting an “[e]xtremely light amount of force, just touching to encourage [Frank] to walk down towards the AVP office.” According to Stahler, Frank, talking on his phone, which he held in his left hand, “mov[ed] his arm back and away just to get my hand off of his back.” In doing so, Stahler said, he “kind of brushed me, turned his shoulder, brushed my hand off of him... just lightly coming in contact with me, but to me that was, you know, basically a form of battery on me.” Stahler thought Frank’s “upper arm or elbow” came in contact with Stahler’s left hand as Frank moved his arm back and away from Stahler.

         At this point, Stahler believed Frank was becoming a disruption by talking loudly on his phone in the hallway while open-doored classes were in session nearby. He “decided... to escalate [his] force” and grabbed Frank’s right wrist with his right hand in order to take Frank to the AVP office. When Frank tried to pull his arm away, Stahler, thinking that Frank had committed battery by brushing Stahler’s left hand and resisted a peace officer by trying to pull away when Stahler grabbed his wrist, forced Frank to the ground, handcuffed him and arrested him. The class bell had rung at some point during their interaction, and around the time Stahler handcuffed Frank there was a “commotion” as students came into the hallway.

         After the presentation of evidence, [2] the People argued that Frank “has a problem with authority figures and not just Officer Stahler, but authority figures at the school.” According to the prosecutor, “[t]here was clearly a violation of the cell phone policy, which seems to have started... this whole incident and series of events.” Stahler “tried to encourage” Frank to go to the office and “asked” Frank to put his phone away, but Frank did neither. Stahler put his hand on Frank’s back, a “minor touch, ” to “encourage” him to go to the AVP office. Frank “came back, brushing Officer Stahler, which was the battery. And continued to resist throughout the entire process of just trying to get [Frank] to go to the AVP office and follow procedures.” The prosecutor also argued Frank’s noisiness disturbed students sitting in nearby open-doored classrooms.

         Minor’s counsel contended that the prosecution was using Frank’s “defiant words and history of defiance and all this stuff... to build this up.” Counsel referred to the evidence that Frank cooperated with the aide to the point of wanting to be taken to the principal’s office, arguing it could be logically inferred from this that Frank had an issue with Stahler’s presence in the AVP office.

         As for the specific allegations against Frank, minor’s counsel argued there was no evidence that Frank willfully or maliciously engaged in unreasonable noise that disturbed other students. Frank did not commit a battery because he came in contact with Stahler’s hand as the result of “a reflective motion” upon being touched, did not act in a harmful or offensive manner and was not rude or talking angrily to Stahler. Frank did not resist Stahler because Stahler testified that he did not enforce the school’s phone policy, which in any event could lead only to detention rather than arrest.

         The prosecutor responded by emphasizing that Frank had resisted Stahler by his “initial battery” and because Frank “pulled his wrist away from Officer Stahler.... And that’s why Officer Stahler testified that he had to take him down to the ground, because there was no other way of getting [Frank] to cooperate with his instructions in this case.”

         The juvenile court found that Stahler’s testimony was credible. It concluded there was insufficient evidence that Frank had disturbed the peace in violation of section 415(2) and that the People had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Frank had committed a battery against Stahler and had willfully resisted a peace officer. Frank subsequently petitioned for a new hearing under Welfare and Institutions Code section 778 and moved under Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531 (Pitchess) for an in camera review of Stahler’s personnel records. ...

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