Release Date:  April 3, 2018
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral Argument in People v. Farwell on Wednesday

The California Supreme Court will hold oral argument on April 4 to consider a defendant’s claim that a conviction is automatically void if the accused is not specifically advised by the judge about the consequences of his agreement to admit the facts of one of the charges during the trial.

At issue in the case of People v. Farwell is whether such a rule exists, or if a reviewing court can consider the entire trial record to determine if the defendant knowingly and voluntarily agreed to stipulate (admit) to facts that established his guilt of one of the charges against him.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to encourage the court to reject the defendant’s claim.

The case involves a tragic accident which resulted in the death of a young woman. On the afternoon of Friday, June 21, 2013, Randolph Farwell was speeding through a residential neighborhood in Compton, California, with three passengers in his Pontiac Grand Prix. Police and traffic forensics indicate that he was traveling between 82-92 mph when he swerved into oncoming traffic to pass a slow-moving SUV and then swerved back to avoid a head-on collision, losing control of his car. Farwell’s car jumped the curb and crashed into a tree in a public park bordering the street. Front seat passenger Kahdeja Tony was killed in the crash.

At the time of the incident, Farwell was driving on a suspended license. Three years earlier he had been arrested for reckless driving and participating in a speed contest whereby a police officer clocked him at 120 mph while racing another vehicle along Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach.

Following his arrest, Farwell faced charges of vehicular manslaughter and driving with a suspended license. During a pretrial hearing, Farwell sought to plead “no contest” to the suspended license charge or have a separate trial for the charge, but the judge refused. At trial, Farwell and his attorney agreed to stipulate to the facts of the suspended license charge and the judge reported this to the jury in open court. With Farwell sitting next to him, the defense attorney then told the jurors: “on June 21, 2013, [defendant] was driving a motor vehicle while his license was suspended for a failure to appear, and that when he drove, he knew his license was suspended.”

The jury found Farwell guilty on both counts and, due to his prior conviction of a serious felony, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Farwell appealed, arguing that the conviction for driving on a suspended license should be overturned because prior court decisions require the trial judge to expressly advise him that he would be giving up several constitutional trial rights if he agreed to stipulate to it. After the Court of Appeal denied that claim, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear Farwell’s appeal.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argues that earlier rulings, which required an automatic reversal if the trial judge did not expressly advise the defendant of the trial rights being given up, were modified by the California Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in People v. Howard. In that decision, the court held that the determination of whether a stipulation to an offense was knowing and voluntary could be made based on a review of the totality of the circumstances, even if the defendant was not specifically advised at the time of the stipulation. In this case, the defendant knew he would face trial on the suspended license charge. He attempted to plead no contest to that charge prior to trial, and he knew that evidence of his suspended license and why it was suspended would be introduced at trial unless he stipulated to that charge. He was sitting in court when the judge announced that the stipulation had been agreed upon and when his attorney admitted the charge to the jury. This, and the fact that Farwell was a repeat offender who had twice pled guilty to criminal charges in the past, clearly indicated that he understood what he was agreeing to.

“A decision ignoring these facts and establishing an inflexible rule that a conviction is void if a specific instruction was not given at the time the stipulation was entered would invite numerous appeals and risk overturning the convictions of patently guilty criminals,” said Stapleton.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.