Prop 47 Changes To Criminal Penalties
Prop 47 was voted into California law in November 2014. It is also know as the “Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative“. Among other things it changed the dollar value limits for theft and fraud to be considered a misdemeanor. Before this law, theft of $400 or more was charged as a felony. Now the value must be $950 or more to be considered a felony. This change also applies retroactively to crimes committed before the Prop 47 passed. Anyone serving a felony sentence for theft or fraud valued at $400 to $950 can request resentencing. Also, criminal records may be changed to show that a previous felony is now a misdemeanor. Because this law is fairly new, there are cases that require courts to examine the effects and limits of Prop. 47.
Aggregation of Forged Checks
Recently, a California court of appeal has ruled that forged checks can’t be combined to make several misdemeanors into a felony. The appeal concerns a young woman who was convicted in 2014 of felony forgery of several checks ranging from $150 to $450, with a total of $8734. The Attorney General argues that reducing this case to a misdemeanor would be “outside the spirit” of prop 47. The Court of Appeals rules that “The spirit of Proposition 47 is confined to its specific language.” This ruling hinges on the text of the law. Prop 47 amended Penal Code 473 to read, “the value of the check . . . does not exceed
[$950].” The phrase “the check” is very important here. The law does not say anything about aggregate value or combined value. The Court of Appeals used a very strict interpretation of the law and didn’t try to interpret the “spirit” of Prop 47 as the Attorney General requested. This is a very good thing for defense attorneys and their clients, and it’s just as well. Interpreting the spirit of laws becomes very messy, especially as time goes on and the spirit becomes increasingly separate from the effects of the law.
Receiving Stolen Property
Other defendants may not be so lucky to benefit from Prop 47. Even though Prop 47 states that receiving stolen property worth $950 or less is a misdemeanor, there are still cases that can result in a felony conviction. This is due to Prop 47 not amending Penal Code 496(d).
(d) Notwithstanding Section 664, any attempt to commit any act prohibited by this section, except an offense specified in the accusatory pleading as a misdemeanor, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.
For your convenience, this is subdivision (h) of Section 1170.
(h) (1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.
The phrase “or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170” is key here. This wording leaves receiving stolen property as a “wobbler”. A wobbler can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Even though many charges were reduced to misdemeanors if the monetary value is under $950, receiving stolen property can still be a felony. As absurd as it sounds, the actual theft could be a misdemeanor, but the person receiving the property could be charged with a felony. The court even puts a lampshade on it in a footnote.
That said, we find nothing absurd or irrational about the legislative
determination that receiving stolen property of very low value should, as a general
matter, be punishable as a misdemeanor pursuant to section 496, while retaining the
statutory option of punishing the receipt of a stolen motor vehicle, even one of very low
value, as a felony violation of section 496d.
Sometimes a strict interpretation of the law works in our favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s always hope that another proposition closes these loopholes and restores some sanity to the law.