Release Date: November 30, 2020
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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CJLF Challenges Law Shortening Sentences for Juvenile Murderers
Oral argument in O.G. v. Superior Court set for Tuesday, December 1

The California Supreme Court will hold oral argument Tuesday to review a constitutional challenge to a 2018 law (SB 1391) that prohibits all 14 and 15 year olds, including the worst juvenile murderers, from being tried in adult court.

The California Constitution specifies that a ballot initiative adopted by the voters cannot be amended by the Legislature unless the initiative specifically allows it. An initiative can only be amended by the voters’ adoption of another initiative.

At issue in the case of O.G. v. Superior Court is whether SB 1391, signed into law in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown, conflicts with Proposition 57, a Brown-sponsored ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 2016. Proposition 57 allows a judge to decide if a 14- or 15-year-old murderer should be tried in adult court. In September 2019, a unanimous panel of the state’s Second District Court of Appeal held that SB 1391 conflicts with Proposition 57 by removing this option and is therefore invalid. Five divided panels of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth District Courts of Appeal ruled that there was no conflict. The Supreme Court has stayed those rulings until it decides the O.G. case.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to argue that SB 1391 is unconstitutional.

The O.G. case involves a 15-year-old street gang member who is facing trial for fatally shooting Jose Lopez, 22, of Port Hueneme on April 22, 2018, and stabbing Adrian “Mikey” Ornelas, 26, of Oxnard to death on May 20, 2018, in order to gain respect from his fellow gang members.

When the Ventura County District Attorney requested that the killer be tried in adult court, the presiding judge granted it, noting that by requiring he be tried in juvenile court SB 1391 violated Proposition 57. When the murderer appealed that holding, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief supporting his appeal. Following the unanimous decision of the Second District, the Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decision.

Both the murderer and Attorney General Becerra claim that Proposition 57 allows amendments by the Legislature if the amendments are “consistent with and will further the intent” of the initiative. They argue that Proposition 57 was enacted to reduce the number of juveniles tried in adult court by removing the decision from the District Attorney and placing it with a judge. It is their position that eliminating all 14 and 15 year olds from being tried as adults therefore furthers the initiative’s goal.

In a scholarly amicus curiae brief, Foundation Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argues that a law that allows the prosecution of a juvenile murderer in adult court is not consistent with a law that prohibits it. The intent of the voters and the proponents of Proposition 57 was to leave that decision with a judge. Because SB 1391 prevents a judge from making that decision, it is inconsistent with the intent of the initiative.

Under current California law, a murderer convicted in juvenile court can only be incarcerated up to age 25. “A ruling upholding SB 1391 would permit the early release of some of the state’s most violent juvenile criminals, and it would open the door to appeals from other juvenile murderers who received adult sentences to claim that they are entitled to a new trial in juvenile court,” said Stapleton. “Such a ruling would undermine direct democracy in California by allowing the Legislature to amend voter approved initiatives based on its subjective view of ‘voter intent,’ ” she added.

Foundation Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton are available for comment at (916) 446-0345.