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People v. Leelu

California Court of Appeals, Sixth District

December 3, 2019

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent
CHARLETE LEELU, Defendant and Appellant.

          Santa Clara County Superior Court Case Nos.: B1795335, C1779663, Hon. Michele McKay McCoy Trial judge.

          Attorney for Defendant and Appellant CHARLETE LEELU: Gordon B. Scott under appointment by the Court of Appeal for Appellant

          Attorneys for Plaintiff and Respondent THE PEOPLE: Xavier Becerra Attorney General of California, Jeffrey M. Laurence Senior Assistant Attorney General, Catherine A. Rivlin Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Allan Yannow Deputy Attorney General

          DANNER, J.

         Appellant Charlete Leelu appeals an order committing her to the Department of State Hospitals based on a finding under Penal Code section 1368 et seq. that she was incompetent to stand trial on criminal charges. Although Leelu has subsequently been deemed restored to competency and has returned to the trial court for criminal proceedings, we conclude her appeal is not moot. We further determine that any error the trial court may have made in failing to appoint a second mental health expert to evaluate her competency was not prejudicial in light of the overwhelming evidence that Leelu was not competent to stand trial.

         I. Facts and procedural background

         The facts of Leelu's alleged crimes are not relevant to this appeal. On December 12, 2017, Leelu was charged by complaint with misdemeanor trespass, in violation of Penal Code section 602, subdivision (m) in docket B1795335.[1] That same day, the trial court granted Leelu's motion to represent herself.

         On December 15, 2017, in docket C1779663, Leelu was charged by complaint with stalking, in violation of section 646.9, subdivision (a). On December 28, 2017, Leelu made her first appearance in the case. Leelu told the public defender and the trial court that she wanted to represent herself. Leelu asserted to the court, “I know my rights. I can have jury trial representing myself. [¶]... [¶] All psychiatry. And they arrest me so many times in the past couple years, but now I want to be candidate of U.S. senator. We need to change to make a difference, as Donald Trump said.” The trial court stated, “I had some experience with Ms. Leelu [in another department]. She is scheduled to be in my department on Tuesday for trial. Based on her behavior here, which included a very aggressive and physical demeanor in terms of speaking to the Court and acting out at the podium, and the way she's addressing the Court and talking about her case, I believe that I have a doubt, and so pursuant to [section] 1368, criminal proceedings are suspended.” Leelu stated, “I will let all 32 million people know this judge use police to harass me and my husband and always do things, keeping asking money from me, no jury trial at all. And the police chief right to hire and --.”

         On January 4, 2018, the trial court suspended proceedings against Leelu in docket B1795335 pursuant to section 1368. That same day, the trial court appointed a doctor to conduct a competency evaluation of Leelu.[2]

         Dr. D. Ashley Cohen filed a report with the trial court on February 6, 2018, after having interviewed Leelu. In the report, Dr. Cohen opined that Leelu was exhibiting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and was not “able to comprehend the nature of the legal proceedings in which she is involved, and her psychiatric symptoms are present to such an extent that they render her incapable of assisting counsel in pursuing a defense in a rational manner.” Dr. Cohen stated, “[i]t is believed that [Leelu] has been exhibiting these disordered behaviors and thoughts for a lengthy time, and they have gradually grown worse, in the absence of any therapeutic intervention.”

         Dr. Cohen opined Leelu “is not rational or coherent in conversation, she cannot express herself such that others can understand her meaning, and she misperceives, or cannot comprehend what others are saying to her. She is confused and misinformed about her legal case, and gets facts intertwined with her delusions.” For example, Leelu “insists that her attorney is ‘The Senior Minister of the Interior,' from Canada, and he would be defending her except he lost his Canadian driver's license, and must return home to get a replacement.” Dr. Cohen observed Leelu “spoke in a rapid, pressured manner.... Much of her speech was repetitious, involving favored paranoid themes of individuals, government and religious organizations planning to harm her, the police harassing her, and her ability to discern ‘hidden' meanings and messages that escaped the notice of everyone else. She was almost never able to speak in a manner that was rational, coherent, or logical. For example, when asked how she remembers things that may be important to her in the future, she replied, ‘I have a diamond ring with an iPad inside it.' ” Leelu “strenuously denie[d] any present or past mental health symptoms or treatment.”

         On February 15, 2018, the parties appeared before the trial court for a determination of competency. Leelu was apparently removed from the courtroom following statements she made to the court and her counsel.[3] The court noted that Dr. Cohen had opined that Leelu was not competent to stand trial. The trial court stated, “either side, of course, can request a second doctor or, if it's submitted on the report of Dr. Cohen, I can refer it to the South Bay Conditional Release Program.”

         Leelu's attorney stated that she had advised Leelu of Dr. Cohen's opinion which, according to Leelu's attorney, “prompted [Leelu] to address the Court in a loud, angry voice, which can be described as yelling. And her discourse was not linear to the conversation I was having or to any conversation that was happening in court. But as her appointed attorney, I do believe I have to equate that with an objection. But I do think the Court did see evidence before it to make a decision based on Dr. Cohen's report. And I can submit on the report, preserve Ms. Leelu's objection, and waive her right to have [a] jury trial, waive her right to confront and cross-examine her accusers, her right to present evidence in her defense, and submit the issues of competency to the Court.”

         The prosecutor stated, “the People are also willing to submit.” The prosecutor also asked the trial court to instruct Leelu at the next court appearance that she should not contact one of the victims. The trial court replied that it would “make a note.” The court said it had “no expectation that [Leelu] will listen or understand, ” but it would “certainly try.”

         The court stated “based on the submission, I'll find-and my own observations-I'll find that Ms. Leelu is not competent and she lacks capacity to make independent decisions regarding her medications.” The trial court referred the matter to the South Bay Conditional Release Program. On March 2, 2018, the South Bay Conditional Release Program submitted a report to the court stating, “there is significant evidence that suggests [Leelu] is inappropriate for community outpatient treatment to reach trial competency. Currently, Ms. Leelu is so severely decompensated that she would be unable to function and/or cooperate with any outpatient treatment.” The report recommended that Leelu be “committed to the Department of State Hospitals for placement in a trial competency program.” On March 8, 2018, the trial court conducted a hearing and ordered Leelu committed to the Department of State Hospitals (DSH).[4] Leelu filed in both dockets a timely notice of appeal of the March 8 commitment order.

         On July 24, 2019, Leelu's appellate counsel filed a request for judicial notice with this court in which counsel requested we take judicial notice of records that show that Leelu was returned to the superior court from DSH in December 2018, and proceedings related to both cases are currently pending in the trial court.[5]

         Leelu argues the trial court erred in the competency hearing when it failed to appoint a second psychiatrist or psychologist pursuant to section 1369, subdivision (a) (hereafter section 1369(a)). Leelu acknowledges that she has completed restoration proceedings but argues this court should not dismiss her appeal as moot for two reasons. First, Leelu contends that her case presents a legal issue of continuing public interest, because the lengthy timeline of an appeal makes it difficult to address any trial court error before the end of a section 1368 commitment. In addition, Leelu argues her case is not moot because she will not receive “good time” credits under section 4019 for time during which she was committed to DSH, and she would have received such credits had she been confined in the county jail. (See §§ 1375.5, 4019.) Finally, Leelu maintains she suffered prejudice because “there is no way to be sure of the results of a second opinion, ” and one can have a mental illness and still be competent to stand trial. Leelu requests that her case be reversed and remanded for a second evaluation to determine the accuracy of the “initial determination” that Leelu was incompetent.

         The Attorney General contends that, because Leelu has been restored to competency, any error the trial court may have committed in its competency determination “has no lingering consequences.” The Attorney General does not address Leelu's argument about custody credits. The Attorney General also argues that defense counsel's statement with respect to Leelu's objection “fell short of a statement that [Leelu] was not seeking a finding of mental incompetence” that would trigger the appointment of a second psychologist or psychiatrist. Finally, the Attorney General maintains that Leelu has not established prejudice under the standard set out in People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, 836 (Watson) but provides no authority or argument why Watson supplies the appropriate standard of prejudice.

         Leelu replies that Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18 (Chapman) sets out the appropriate prejudice standard because the trial court's failure to appoint a second evaluator violated her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Leelu does not cite any authority for ...

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