Cuccia v. Superior Court, B197278.

Decision Date16 July 2007
Docket NumberNo. B197278.,B197278.
Citation153 Cal.App.4th 347,62 Cal.Rptr.3d 796
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesSalvatore David CUCCIA, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Ventura County, Respondent, The People, Real Party in Interest.

Rudy Kraft, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Petitioner.

Gregory D. Totten, District Attorney, Michelle J. Contois, Deputy District Attorney, for real party in interest.

No appearance for Respondent.



The doctrine of stare decisis requires a trial court to follow an unambiguous published holding of the Court of Appeal, even if the trial court believes that the appellate opinion was erroneously decided. This, we had assumed, was fairly obvious to every trial court judge; that is, until now.

Salvatore David Cuccia (Petitioner) seeks a writ of mandate directing the respondent superior court to dismiss recommitment proceedings initiated by the district attorney pursuant to the Mentally Disordered Offender Act (MDO). (Pen Code § 2960, et seq.)1 He contends the district attorney does not have statutory authority to initiate recommitment proceedings for his involuntary civil commitment unless the Medical Director of the treating state hospital determines that his severe mental disorder is not in remission or cannot be kept in remission without treatment. We agree with the holding of People v. Marchman (2006) 145 Cal. App.4th 79, 51 Cal.Rptr.3d 369 (Marchman) and grant his petition for a writ of mandate.

Factual and Procedural Background2

In 1996, Petitioner plead guilty to false imprisonment by violence, and assault with a deadly weapon with the infliction of great bodily injury. (§§ 236, 245, subd. (a)(1), 12022.7.) According to the probation report, Petitioner struck his girlfriend in the face, beat her nude body with a padlock and chain wrapped in a towel, forced her into a bathtub filled with water, and beat her with a crowbar. Later, he bound her nude body with duct tape, forced her into a hole under the house, and filled the hole with water. The trial court sentenced him to six years in prison.

During his prison confinement, Petitioner received treatment for his mental illness. (§ 2684.) The Board of Prison Terms later determined that he was an MDO pursuant to the criteria of section 2962. As a condition of parole, it required him to accept treatment from the Department of Mental Health.

In 2002, the People filed a petition for recommitment pursuant to section 2970. The petition was supported by the reports of two staff psychologists at Patton State Hospital, Drs. Steven Jenkins and Robert Welsh. These doctors concluded that Petitioner was mildly symptomatic at the time, and hence not in remission, but could be safely and effectively monitored in an outpatient treatment program as long as his risk factors were carefully monitored. He was diagnosed at this time as suffering from schizophrenia, substance abuse, and an antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Jenkins did not find any evidence to support a diagnosis of sexual sadism, but added a diagnosis of "parahilia not otherwise specified." Dr. Welsh reported that the commitment offense did not involve a sexual charge and his last alleged sex offense was over 20 years old. The `trial court sustained the petition and extended his commitment to June of 2003. Orders of recommitment were subsequently entered, extending his commitment to June 6, 2006. On November 3, 2005, Dr. Sarla Gnanamuthu, the Medical Director at Patton State Hospital, sent a letter to the People indicating that petitioner's severe mental disorder was in remission. The letter was supported by a report dated October 12, 2005, and signed by Staff Psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Ogbechic.

Dr. Ogbechic opined that Petitioner suffered from a severe mental disorder ("schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type"), but believed his severe mental illness was in remission. He reported that Petitioner was not currently exhibiting any symptoms of mental illness, such as hallucinations, delusions, or disordered, thoughts. Nor did he believe that Petitioner represented a substantial danger of physical harm to others by reason of his mental illness. The doctor noted that Petitioner had not been observably violent since 1995. His victims involved women with whom he had sexual relations, including adults and adolescent females, but he had not demonstrated any positive symptoms of psychosis, he was medication compliant, and willfully participated in psychiatric treatment. He had received one-on-one therapy for assault on women, attended weekly anger management classes, had developed a wellness and recovery treatment plan, and was able to recognize "prodromal signs of a relapse." The doctor concluded that Petitioner could, be safely and effectively treated on an outpatient basis. Dr. Ogbechic's report was approved by James Pollard, Program Director, and Dr. Gnanamuthu.

Notwithstanding the unanimous views of the treatment staff, and the Medical Director, in January of 2006, the People filed a petition to extend Petitioner's MDO treatment. The only evidence offered in "support" of the People's motion was the above letter written by Dr. Sarla Gnanamuthu and the report of Dr. Ogbechic.

In April of 2006, Petitioner moved to dismiss the People's petition on the theory that the district attorney lacked authority to file a petition for recommitment because the director of the facility providing his treatment had not provided a written evaluation in accordance with section 2970 indicating that recommitment was appropriate. Petitioner also argued that even if the People had authority to initiate the proceeding to continue his involuntary civil commitment, the People's factual showing in support of their petition was inadequate.

The People opposed Petitioner's motion, arguing that section 2972, subdivision (e) does not require approval of the Department of Mental Health in order to initiate a petition for recommitment. On May 3, 2006, the trial court denied Petitioner's motion.

On January 25, 2007, Petitioner renewed his motion to dismiss citing the recent decision in Marchman, supra, 145 Cal. App.4th 79, 51 Cal.Rptr.3d 369, which held that a district attorney may not institute MDO recommitment proceedings unless the Medical Director of the state's treating facility indicated that the person is not in remission or cannot be kept in remission without treatment.

On February 20, 2007, the People opposed Petitioner's renewed motion, asserting that Marchman was wrongly decided.3 The People further argued that Petitioner did not meet the statutory definition of remission and that Dr. Robert Beilin, Community Program Director of the Conditional Release Program (CONREP), believed he was too dangerous for outpatient treatment. The People added that the Marchman decision "would force upon society the absurd result of Petitioner's release." The People noted that Petitioner could not be placed in an outpatient setting without the express agreement of the community program director, who refused to accept Petitioner into CONREP. Consequently, the People argued, if the department's view was controlling, Petitioner would have to be released to the community, with no transitional placement or supervision.4

The People attached Dr. Beilin's report, issued one year earlier in February of 2006, refusing to accept Petitioner in outpatient treatment. Dr. Beilin explained that Petitioner refused to participate in sex offender treatment and could not, therefore, be kept in remission. He opined that Petitioner's refusal of sex offender treatment was the, greatest risk factor for his future dangerousness. In his opinion, the diagnosis of sexual sadism was dropped by the treating staff without justification.

The People also submitted the September 2006 report of Dr. Beryl Davis who concluded that Petitioner's severe mental disorder was not in remission. Dr. Davis echoed Dr. Beilin's statements that Petitioner had refused treatment to address sexual offending. Noting that the commitment offense occurred when Petitioner was 57 years old and he is now 67, she stated that "[u]ntil he acknowledges his offense behavior and participates in treatment to address his rage and desire to inflict pain and humiliation on his victim, there is nothing to indicate that the behavior that he initiated that is descriptive of Sexual Sadism is in remission." The People concluded that the permissive language in section 2972, subdivision (e), i.e., "the district attorney may file a petition," gave the district attorney, rather than the Medical Director of the Department of Mental Health, the authority to determine whether to seek continued involuntary treatment for prisoners such as Petitioner whose parole periods have expired.

On February 22, 2007, the trial court denied Petitioner's renewed motion to dismiss, reasoning, in part, that Marchman was wrongly decided. The trial court said that appellate courts are not always right and it mentioned two examples: 1. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that President Bush had not won in the presidential election in the state of Florida but was wrong because, the United States Supreme Court disagreed. 2. The California Supreme Court ruled that the determinate sentence law passed federal jury trial requirements but was wrong because the United States Supreme Court disagreed. While we do not think that the trial court was equating itself with the United States Supreme Court, the effect of its ruling can only be equated with overruling Marchman, supra, 145 Cal.App.4th 79, 51 Cal. Rptr.3d 369.

Stare Decisis

Petitioner contends, and the People belatedly concede, that the trial court was required to follow the decision in Marchman and grant his motion to dismiss. Pursuant to Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal.2d 450, 455, 20 Cal.Rptr. 321, 369 P,2d 937, the decisions of every...

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