The Second District of the California Court of Appeal handed down its decision in People v. Laanui on January 8, 2021, about a week after the ADDA, a union representing Los Angeles prosecutors, sued DA George Gascon. On its face, the case does not appear to be relevant to the lawsuit, but on closer look, the court is clearly signaling approval for the union’s position.
A Parking Lot Murder Led to a Series of Other Crimes
Defendant Elliot Laanui shot victim Edward Emery in a supermarket in Redondo Beach in 1995. There were multiple witnesses and DNA evidence. The DNA was not tested until 2011. It led police to the defendant, who was arrested. Laanui implicated himself during a Perkins operation and communicated with undercover deputies. Somehow, the defendant was released and committed several other crimes, including a shooting and soliciting the murder of an accomplice.
Strikes Were Charged as to Some Counts But Not Others
The information charged a complicated series of crimes and enhancements. There were six total counts. On counts 1, 2, and 3, the information alleged that defendant had suffered serious or violent felony convictions within the meaning of the “Three Strikes” law. These enhancements were not charged as to count 6, solicitation of murder of an accomplice.
Defendant was convicted on all counts. The court used the Three Strikes law to double the sentence on count 6, even though it had not been pled as to count 6. This decision was appealed to the Second District of the California Court of Appeal. This is the same court that would hear an appeal in the ADDA lawsuit.
The Court of Appeal Only Published Its Discussion of Strikes
The first clue of the Court of Appeal’s intentions came from what it chose to write about. The defendant in Laanui raised nine contentions on appeal. The court only published its discussion of the issues related to the filing of strikes.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and held that it properly doubled the sentence on count 6 under the Three Strikes law. After discussing the parties’ contentions, the Second District got right to the point, the same point at the heart of the ADDA lawsuit:
The purpose of the Three Strikes law is “to ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of one or more serious or violent felony offenses.” (§ 667, subd. (b).) By its own terms, it applies “in every case in which a defendant has one or more prior serious or violent felony convictions . . . .” (Id., subd. (f)(1), italics added; see also § 1170.12, subd. (d)(1).)
(People v. Laanui (2021) — Cal.Rptr.3d —, at p. *12.)
By now your ears should have perked up if you are remembering the ADDA lawsuit. After all, the heart of that suit is the contention that prosecutors must file strikes in every case, despite their boss’s order to never file strikes. Here, the Court of Appeal is making a blanket statement that Three Strikes applies in “every case” in which the defendant has a strike prior. By contrast, George Gascon doesn’t want it to apply in any case in Los Angeles.
What the court wrote next seems to apply directly to the ADDA lawsuit.
Indeed, despite the “general rule” that “the selection of criminal charges is a matter subject to prosecutorial discretion,” “the Three Strikes law limits that discretion and requires the prosecutor to plead and prove each prior serious felony conviction.” (People v. Roman (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 141, 145 (Roman); see § 667, subd. (f)(1) [“The prosecuting attorney shall plead and prove each prior serious or violent felony conviction . . . .”], italics added; see also § 1170.12, subd. (d)(1).) The prosecution may move the court to dismiss the prior conviction allegation for insufficient evidence or “in the furtherance of justice” (§§ 667, subd. (f)(2), 1170.12, subd. (d)(2)), but may not “unilaterally strike” the allegation. (Roman, at p. 145.)
(Laanui, supra, at p. *12.)
This statement could form the holding of a ruling in the ADDA case, it is so directly on point. This statement is also the first principle of law that appears in the published opinion. It was given pride of place despite the fact that the actual issue in contention was directly controlled by different precedent. (See People v. Garcia (1999) 20 Cal.4th 490.) Garcia holds that “it is appropriate to allege [defendant’s prior conviction] status only once as to all current counts.” (Id. at p. 502.)
Why would the Court of Appeal discuss the general applicability of Three Strikes first? Especially when they could have skipped right to Garcia, which controls? And this happened not once, but twice. There is a second controlling case, People v. Morales (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 445. This case is also factually analogous but was discussed second.
The opinion is littered with points of law that will apply in the ADDA case. The court quotes Penal Code section 667(f), which provides that Three Strikes “shall be applied in every case in which a defendant has a prior felony conviction. (Morales, supra, 106 Cal.App.4th at p. 455.) In fact, the Court of Appeal quotes this language in no fewer than three different sections of the opinion.
But that isn’t all. The court says that “it would be evident […] on the face of the Three Strikes law that the prior strike would apply to all eligible counts, unless the trial court dismissed the strike either on its own motion or in response to a motion by the prosecution or defense.” (Laanui, supra, at p. *15.) Moreover, “the prosecution expressly cannot make a discretionary choice not to pursue the Three Strikes alternative sentencing regime on all eligible counts.” (Id. [internal quotations and punctuation omitted].) But this is exactly what George Gascon wants to do. And it forms the basis for the dispute in the ADDA’s lawsuit.
The Court of Appeal concluded its opinion by describing Three Strikes as “nondiscretionary.” (Id. at p. *17.)
Why Is Really Happening Here?
The Metropolitan News-Enterprise summarized the opinion this way: “the majority opinion […] recite[s] a proposition that Los Angeles County’s new district attorney, George Gascon, is contesting: that a prosecutorial agency is legally obliged to allege all strikes.” The Met News continues:
The two opinions in Laanui, each reciting that the charging of all priors is mandated by statute, come at a time when Gascón is ordering deputies not to allege any strikes. Although the requirements of the Three Strikes Law have been upheld in the past, the opinions add reinforcement to the position of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (“ADDA”), which has brought a Los Angeles Superior Court action against Gascón to block some of the “special directives” issued by him on Dec. 7, his first day in office, including his prohibition on alleging strikes.
The Laanui opinion was issued just after the ADDA lawsuit was filed. The ADDA lawsuit was discussed extensively in the legal press. And the Laanui opinion itself contains paragraphs of precedent that seem to control the issues in the ADDA lawsuit. This precedent is given pride of place in the opinion, even before cases that control the outcome.
I believe that the Court of Appeal is trying to signal the correct ruling to the ADDA’s judge. The only other option appears to be that Laanui is an incredible coincidence. But it is hard for me to believe that such a relevant and forceful opinion could have been issued by accident.