August 13, 2020

People v. Turner, No. D075237, 2020 WL 828701 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2020)

Defendant pleaded guilty to a charge of felony welfare fraud and, as a condition of probation, was ordered to pay nearly $5,000 of victim restitution to the state. She filed a motion to have her felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor and a discretionary petition to have the charge dismissed or expunged. The trial court denied the requests because she had not satisfied any of her victim restitution obligations. Defendant appealed, contending that she lacked the financial means to make the court-mandated victim restitution payments and that the order denying her requests because of her failure to pay victim restitution deprived her of certain statutory rights and benefits available to more affluent criminal defendants, thereby violation her due process and equal protection rights. The court began by explaining that the trial court has broad discretion to reduce the category of crime of which defendant was convicted to a misdemeanor. However, the court explained that the Supreme Court has articulated factors relevant to the exercise of discretion, which include the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s appreciation of and attitude toward the offense, or her traits of character as evidenced by her behavior and demeanor at the trial. Independently, a defendant may petition the court to set aside a guilty plea, which may be done: (1) when a defendant has fulfilled the conditions of probation for the entire period of probation; (2) has been discharged prior to the termination of the period of probation; or (3) in any other case in which a court in its discretion and the interests of justice determines that a defendant should be granted the relief available. Defendant sought relief solely under the third, discretionary, factor. Relying on precedent, the court denied defendant relief. The court concluded that the rehabilitative purposes of probation, and the constitutional right of victims to restitution, would be ill-served if the defendant could have her conviction expunged without having made up for the victim’s losses. The court continued that there was no equal protection violation simply because the defendant was not wealthy enough to have paid her court-ordered restitution in full while she was on probation. “It would be anomalous indeed if a provision designed to equalize the treatment of rich and poor defendants were applied in a way that only shifted the inequality to the other extreme. Equal protection means only that the defendant can have her conviction expunged, the same as the wealthier defendant … if and when she pays restitution to the victim, in full.” Further, due process was not implicated because the nature and extent of the individual interest affected in an expungement case (the desire for a clean criminal record) did not resemble other instances in which a due process violation has been recognized (e.g., where there has been a complete loss of personal liberty). In addition, defendant’s desire to reduce or expunge her felony conviction is not a persuasive argument that her rights would be severely impaired by the denial order. Moreover, allowing courts to withhold expungement as inducement to ensuring payment of restitution bears a rational relationship to the primary purpose of victim restitution—fulfilling the voter-enacted constitutional provision requiring that defendants make victims whole. The order was affirmed.