California Court of Appeals, First District, First Division
Cal.Rptr.3d 606] Mendocino County Superior Court, Trial
Judge: Hon. Cindee Mayfield. (Mendocino County Super. Ct. No.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Becerra, Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler and Jeffrey M.
Laurence, Assistant Attorneys General, Moona Nandi and
Bridget Billeter, Deputy Attorneys General, for Petitioner.
A. Aaron, Public Defender, Eric O. Rennert, Chief Deputy
Public Defender, Robert C. Smith, Deputy Public Defender, for
Real Party in Interest.
a probable cause hearing, respondent court dismissed the
Peoples petition for civil commitment of real party in
interest John Couthren as a sexually violent predator (SVP)
under the Sexually
Violent Predators Act (Welf. & Inst.
Code, § 6600 et seq. (SVP Act)) and referred
him for release on parole. At the hearing, the People relied
solely on documentary submissions— including the SVP
petition and attached expert psychological evaluations—
to establish probable cause. The trial court, after
construing relevant precedent and considering the Supreme
Courts decision in People v. Sanchez (2016) 63
Cal.4th 665, 204 Cal.Rptr.3d 102, 374 P.3d 320
(Sanchez ), concluded that the psychological
evaluations were case-specific hearsay statements submitted
for their truth, rendering them inadequate to meet the
Peoples evidentiary burden at a probable cause hearing once
an objection had been lodged. In the absence of other
competent evidence, the trial court dismissed the petition.
these writ proceedings, the People seek extraordinary relief
from the trial courts dismissal order, arguing that
long-settled precedent permits the People to prove probable
cause through use of written expert evaluations, despite
their hearsay nature, and that Sanchez does not
undermine the legitimacy of this procedure. We disagree and
deny the petition.
March 2018, the Mendocino County District Attorney filed a
petition to commit Couthren as an SVP under the SVP Act.
Specifically, the petition alleged that Couthren had been
convicted of felony oral [254 Cal.Rptr.3d 607] copulation in
1973 (Pen. Code, § 288, subd. (a)) and felony kidnapping
(id., § 207, subd. (a)) in each of 1979 and 1999,
all sexually violent offences pursuant to section 6600,
subdivision (b). The petition further alleged that Couthrens
most recent term of incarceration was expiring and that he
represented a current danger to others. Attached to the
petition was a letter from a deputy director of the
Department of State Hospitals recommending Couthrens
commitment as an SVP, as well as four certified copies of
expert evaluation reports from psychologists who examined
Couthren. Drs. Hartley, Korpi, and Flinton all opined that
Couthren met the statutory criteria for designation as an
SVP. Dr. Kokubun disagreed, asserting that Couthren did not
currently have a diagnosable mental disorder that predisposed
him to the commission of criminal sexual acts.
probable cause hearing was set for November 26, 2018. In
September 2018, the People informed Couthrens attorney that
the probable cause hearing would be submitted on the reports
of the three concurring psychologists (Hartley, Korpi, and
Flinton), but that the report of the dissenting psychologist
(Kokubun) had been provided to the court for its information.
Although Couthrens counsel initially raised no objection to
on the date set for hearing he filed a motion
in limine, seeking to exclude the expert evaluations on
hearsay grounds in light of the Supreme Courts decision in
Sanchez, supra, 63 Cal.4th 665, 204 Cal.Rptr.3d 102,
374 P.3d 320. Neither the People nor Couthren presented any
live testimony at the probable cause hearing. Instead, the
People submitted the matter on the certified expert
evaluations attached to the petition and certain additional
conviction documentation regarding Couthrens prior offenses.
After argument regarding the impact of Sanchez on
this procedure, the court took the matter under submission.
December 10, 2018, the trial court issued its written ruling
with respect to the SVP petition. The court first reviewed
the records of conviction submitted by the People and those
portions of the expert evaluations discussing the details of
Couthrens qualifying convictions, which the court deemed
admissible pursuant to section 6600, subdivision
(a)(3). It found that the People had
sufficiently established the first element under the SVP Act,
that Couthren had committed qualifying sexually violent
offenses against multiple victims. The court concluded,
however, that the remaining elements necessary to support the
designation of Couthren as an SVP could not be established
solely on the basis of hearsay written evaluations once
Couthrens counsel had objected to the admissibility of these
reports. Consequently, it found that the People had
"failed to present admissible evidence from which a
reasonable person could form a strong suspicion that Mr.
Couthren suffers from a mental disorder that creates a
likelihood that he would engage in sexually violent predatory
criminal conduct if released from prison." It dismissed
the SVP petition and ordered Couthren referred for release on
People responded by filing a motion in the trial court
seeking a temporary stay of the dismissal order to allow for
review of the trial courts ruling. Thereafter, on December
13, 2018, the People filed both the instant writ petition in
this court and a corresponding notice of [254 Cal.Rptr.3d
608] appeal in the superior court (People v.
Couthren, A156088, ordered deferred Apr. 4, 2019,
pending writ proceeding). We issued a temporary stay and,
after receiving an informal response and reply, issued an
order to show cause that requested additional briefing.
Having received that briefing, the matter is now before us
A. Pertinent Provisions of the SVP
Legislature enacted the SVP Act in 1995. (Added by Stats.
1995, ch. 763, § 3; see § 6600 et seq.; Howard,
supra, 70 Cal.App.4th at p. 148, 82 Cal.Rptr.2d 481.) In
doing so, it " expressed concern over a select group of
criminal offenders who are extremely dangerous as the result
of mental impairment, and who are likely to continue
committing acts of sexual violence even after they have been
punished for such crimes. The Legislature indicated that to
the extent such persons are currently incarcerated and
readily identifiable, commitment under the [SVP Act] is
warranted immediately upon their release from prison. The
[SVP] Act provides treatment for mental disorders from which
they currently suffer and reduces the threat of harm
otherwise posed to the public. No punitive purpose was
intended. " (People v. Otto (2001) 26 Cal.4th
200, 205, 109 Cal.Rptr.2d 327, 26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061');">26 P.3d 1061 (Otto
).) Civil commitment under the SVP Act "can only
commence if, after a trial, either a judge or a unanimous
jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is an
SVP" (Cooley v. Superior Court (2002) 29
Cal.4th 228, 243, 127 Cal.Rptr.2d 177, 57 P.3d 654');">57 P.3d 654');">57 P.3d 654');">57 P.3d 654
(Cooley ))— that is, an individual who has
been convicted of ...