SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a voter-approved initiative that allows prosecutors to charge juveniles with serious offenses directly rather than going through the preliminary hearing process.
Voters approved Proposition 21, titled the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act of 1998, giving prosecutors the discretion of charging certain juveniles accused of specified offenses directly in adult criminal court.
In 2012, police arrested Isaias Arroyo - then a juvenile - and six others during a traffic stop. A grand jury indicted the seven co-defendants on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and active participation in a criminal street gang.
The grand jury also found true an allegation that Arroyo engaged in a conspiracy for the benefit of, at the direction of and in association with the Los Compadres street gang with the intent to promote, further and assist the criminal conduct of the gang.
Arroyo initially pleaded not guilty, then filed an objection to the indictment arguing that as a juvenile the grand jury had no legal authority to indict him. Instead, Arroyo argued prosecutors had to use the preliminary hearing process to file charges against him in adult criminal court.
A trial court judge agreed, allowed Arroyo to withdraw his plea and dismissed him from the indictment. The Orange County District Attorney appealed and the Fourth Appellate District reversed on the basis of Proposition 21.
Arroyo appealed to the California Supreme Court, arguing that the state's welfare and institutions code gives him the right to a preliminary hearing - particularly since in California there is no right to a postindictment preliminary hearing. So since he was a juvenile at the time of charging, Arroyo argued his prosecution could not be initiated by indictment because juveniles must be first examined by a magistrate.
Conversely, prosecutors argued Proposition 21 gave them the discretion to file specified charges against juveniles directly in criminal court and that "the case shall then proceed according to the laws applicable in a criminal case" according to the statute amended by the proposition.
On Thursday, the California high court agreed with the DA and upheld the reinstatement of Arroyo's charges.
"Defendant's reading takes in isolation a single sentence of the statute - i.e., that in conjunction with the preliminary hearing the magistrate 'shall make a finding that reasonable cause exists' - contrary to long-standing principles of interpretation by which we look to 'the entire substance of the statute in order to determine the scope and purpose of the provision,'" Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the court.
"The People's reading of the code better accounts for the statutory language as a whole," Werdegar continued. "Had the provision's drafters intended that prosecutions under this statute be commenced only by way of information, they would have so specified instead of using the broad term 'accusatory pleading,' which includes an indictment.
"The indictment, although returned by the grand jury, becomes the accusatory pleading of the prosecutor once it is presented in superior court. Since prosecutions initiated by information and those commenced by indictment both normally proceed 'according to the laws applicable to a criminal case,' we see nothing in the code that precludes indictment as the mechanism for initiating the prosecution of a minor in a discretionary direct-file case."
The high court also noted that in prosecutions initiated by grand jury, the grand jury must make the same finding a magistrate might that reasonable cause exists that the minor comes within the provisions of the welfare and institutions code - although that finding need not be express, the court said. Instead, returning an indictment against Arroyo satisfied the requirement.
Arroyo's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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