Release Date: February 25, 2021
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Ruling in O.G. v. Superior Court announced today

In a ruling released today, the California Supreme Court announced that a statute passed by the state legislature (SB 1391), which prohibits a juvenile murder suspect from facing trial in adult court, furthers the intent and purpose of a voter-enacted law (Proposition 57), which requires the decision of whether or not to try a juvenile defendant in adult court be made by a judge.

At issue in the case of O.G. v. Superior Court was whether SB 1391, signed into law in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown, conflicted with Proposition 57, a Brown-sponsored ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 2016. Proposition 57 requires 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 Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case to argue that SB 1391 is unconstitutional.

As the result of this ruling, all 14- and 15-year-old murderers—no matter how many people they kill or the circumstances of the murders—can only be incarcerated up to age 25. According to CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton, “by upholding SB 1391, the state will now be required to mandate that they release some of the most violent juvenile criminals in the country. The ruling has also opened the door to appeals from other juvenile murderers and sex offenders who received adult sentences, claiming that they are entitled to a new trial in juvenile court. The clear effect is that initiatives adopted by California voters will be subject to legislative amendment based upon a subjective view of ‘voter intent,’ ” she added.

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

When the Ventura County District Attorney requested that the alleged 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 alleged 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.

Before the Supreme Court, both the alleged murderer and Attorney General Becerra argued that Proposition 57 allows amendments by the Legislature if the amendments are “consistent with and will further the intent” of the initiative. They argued 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. The California Supreme Court agreed with their position that eliminating all 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults furthers the initiative’s goal.

In a scholarly amicus curiae brief, Stapleton argued that a law which 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.

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