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Ashmus v. Superior Court (The People)

California Court of Appeals, First District, Second Division

December 4, 2019

TROY ADAM ASHMUS, Petitioner,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SAN MATEO COUNTY, Respondent THE PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest.

          Superior Court of San Mateo County No. SC015661A Hon. Donald J. Ayoob Trial Judge.

          Habeas Corpus Resource Center, Susan Garvey, Ann L. Kim, Natalie Link, for Petitioner.

          Xavier Becerra, Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Ronald S. Matthias, Assistant Attorney General, Holly D. Wilkens, Sarah J. Farhat and Alice B. Lustre, Deputy Attorneys General, for Real Party in Interest.

          Miller, J.

         In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, an initiative measure that “extensively revamp[ed] the procedures governing habeas corpus petitions in capital cases.” (Briggs v. Brown (2017) 3 Cal.5th 808, 822, 824 (Briggs).) Previously, habeas corpus proceedings in capital cases were initiated in the California Supreme Court, but now such proceedings are to be filed first in superior court. (Id. at pp. 824-825.) Under Penal Code[1] section 1509, added by Proposition 66, “any petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by a person in custody pursuant to a judgment of death” should be transferred to “the court which imposed the sentence... unless good cause is shown for the petition to be heard by another court.” (§ 1509, subd. (a).) For petitions filed before Proposition 66 went into effect, section 1509, subdivision (g) (§ 1509(g)), provides, “If a habeas corpus petition is pending on the effective date of this section, the court may transfer the petition to the court which imposed the sentence.” This case calls us to interpret the phrase “the court which imposed the sentence.”

         Capital prisoner Troy Ashmus had a petition for writ of habeas corpus pending in the California Supreme Court on section 1509's effective date, and the high court transferred Ashmus's petition to the court that imposed the death sentence, San Mateo County Superior Court, pursuant to section 1509(g). The Attorney General then moved to transfer the petition to the court where Ashmus was originally charged with the capital offense, Sacramento County Superior Court, and the trial court granted the motion.

         By petition for writ of mandate, Ashmus challenges the trial court's order transferring his petition to Sacramento County. He argues the San Mateo County trial court flouted the plain language of section 1509 and appellate court intervention is necessary to “avoid a potential ‘tennis match' among courts sending habeas cases bouncing from county to county.” The Attorney General responds that the trial court correctly found good cause existed to “return” the petition to the original transferring court.

         We conclude the trial court misapplied section 1509 and the Attorney General's arguments defending the transfer order to Sacramento County lack merit. We order the issuance of a peremptory writ of mandate.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 1984, the District Attorney of Sacramento County filed an information charging Ashmus with multiple offenses, including first degree murder and rape. On Ashmus's pretrial motion, the trial court changed venue from Sacramento County to San Mateo County. In 1986, a jury found Ashmus guilty of all charges, and the San Mateo County Superior Court imposed a death sentence. (People v. Ashmus (1991) 54 Cal.3d 932, 951-952.)

         In 2014, Ashmus filed a second petition for writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court to exhaust certain claims raised in his habeas petition in federal court.

         On May 22, 2019, the California Supreme Court transferred Ashmus's pending habeas petition to the sentencing court as called for by Proposition 66. Our high court's order provides, “Pursuant to Penal Code section 1509, subdivision (g), the petition is transferred to the Superior Court of California, County of San Mateo.”

         On June 26, 2019, the Attorney General filed a motion to transfer the matter to Sacramento County on behalf of the respondent to Ashmus's habeas petition. The Attorney General relied on California Rules of Court, rule 4.150, which governs change of venue in criminal cases. (Cal. Rules of Court, [2] rule 4.150(a).) Rule 4.150 provides in part, “When a change of venue has been ordered, the case remains a case of the transferring court, ” and “Postverdict proceedings, including sentencing, if any, must be heard in the transferring court.” (Rule 4.150(b)(3).)

         Ashmus opposed the motion, asserting “section 1509 makes clear that a petition should be heard by the court that imposed judgment barring good cause.” He also argued that rule 4.150 was irrelevant because the rule did not exist at the time he was sentenced, and, in any event, the plain language of section 1509 must prevail over an inconsistent rule of court.

         On July 11, 2019, the trial court granted the motion to transfer. The court believed section 1509 was intended to be read “in harmony with [rule] 4.150.” For capital cases in which venue was transferred for trial, the way the court reconciled section 1509 with rule 4.150 was to interpret the phrase “the court which imposed the sentence” as used in section 1509, to mean not the court that actually “imposed the sentence, ” but rather the court that transferred the case to a different venue for trial. The court explained its reasoning, “[Rule] 4.150 being extant at the time of the promulgation of Prop 66 and [section] 1509, I believe it was the drafters' understanding that a habeas corpus petition in a capital case would be returned to the transferring court, that transferring court, in ...


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