Esteybar v. Municipal Court

Decision Date22 June 1971
Citation95 Cal.Rptr. 524,485 P.2d 1140,5 Cal.3d 119
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 485 P.2d 1140 Dolores Mantes ESTEYBAR, Petitioner, v. The MUNICIPAL COURT FOR the LONG BEACH JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent; The PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest. L.A. 29822.

Wise, Kilpatrick & Clayton, and George E. Wise, Long Beach, for petitioner.

John D. Maharg, County Counsel, and Douglas C. Miller, Deputy County Counsel, for respondent.

Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., William E. James, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Russell Iungerich, Deputy Atty. Gen., for real party in interest.

WRIGHT, Chief Justice.

In this case of first impression we are called upon to decide whether a magistrate, pursuant to Penal Code, section 17, subdivision (b)(5), 1 may determine that an offense is a misdemeanor without first obtaining the consent of the prosecuting attorney. Since a prosecutor may not be vested with authority to foreclose the exercise of a judicial power, we have concluded that requiring his consent to determine that an offense is a misdemeanor violates the doctrine of separation of powers set forth in article III, section 1, of the California Constitution.

Petitioner, Dolores Mantes Esteybar, was charged with possession of marijuana (Health & Saf.Code, § 11530), an offense which, in the absence of any prior felony convictions, may be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor. After hearing the evidence at the preliminary hearing the magistrate attempted to hold petitioner to answer on a misdemeanor charge in the municipal court, but he was prevented from exercising his discretion because the prosecuting attorney insisted that petitioner be held to answer on a felony charge in the superior court. Petitioner now seeks a writ of mandate to compel respondent, the Municipal Court for the Long Beach Judicial District, to proceed upon her case as if she had been arraigned on a misdemeanor complaint.

Petitioner was arrested at a Safeway supermarket in the City of Long Beach and was charged with petty theft, a violation of section 484 of the Penal Code. She was accused of having wrongfully taken a package of plastic forks, a bar of soap and a tube of shampoo, all of which had a total value of $1.58. During the booking procedure following petitioner's arrest, a search of her purse revealed a single hand-rolled marijuana cigarette. Petitioner was then charged with possession of marijuana, which charge is the subject of the instant proceeding.

At the preliminary hearing it was stipulated that petitioner had no criminal or arrest record. Because of the nature of the offense and the fact that petitioner had no prior record, the magistrate wished to determine that the offense was a misdemeanor and hold petitioner to answer in the municipal court, rather than holding her to answer in the superior court on a felony charge. The deputy district attorney, however, refused to consent. He stated that it was the policy of the district attorney's office not to consent to the prosecution of such offenses as misdemeanors unless the defendant first agreed to enter a plea of guilty. The magistrate then reluctantly concluded that he had no authority to hold the matter for trial in the lower court in the absence of the district attorney's consent. The case was continued, however, in order to permit the instant petition to be filed. The discussion of court and counsel at the preliminary hearing, which is quoted in its entirety in the margin, clearly sets forth the problems which arise if a prosecutor is permitted to foreclose the exercise of this judicial power. 2

In People v. Tenorio (1970) 3 Cal.3d 89, 89 Cal.Rptr. 249, 473 P.2d 993, we dealt with Health and Safety Code, section 11718, which prevented a court from exercising its power to strike prior convictions without first obtaining the approval of the district attorney. We held that this section constituted an improper invasion of the constitutional province of the judiciary and was therefore violative of the California constitutional separation of powers. As we stated in Tenorio, 'The judicial power is compromised when a judge, who believes that a charge should be dismissed in the interests of justice, wishes to exercise the power to dismiss but finds that before he may do so he must bargain with the prosecutor. The judicial power must be independent and a judge should never be required to pay for its exercise.' (Tenorio, supra, at p. 94, 89 Cal.Rptr. at p. 252, 473 P.2d at p. 996.) Although we are confronted with a different set of circumstances, nevertheless, the rationale underlying our decision in Tenorio applies with equal force to the instant case. The judicial power is compromised when a magistrate, who in the interests of justice and in strict compliance with statutory requirements is of the opinion that an offense should be determined to be a misdemeanor, wishes to exercise his power to hold the defendant to answer in the municipal court but finds that before he may do so he must bargain with the prosecutor.

In determining whether a defendant should be held to answer on a felony or a misdemeanor, a committing magistrate exercises a judicial power which must be based upon an examination of the circumstances of the particular case before him. Nevertheless, section 17, subdivision (b)(5), purports to vest in the prosecutor, admittedly an advocate, a power which may be exercised in a totally arbitrary fashion without regard to the circumstances of individual cases. Indeed, the prosecutor in the instant case admitted that it was a county-wide policy of the district attorney's office to refuse to consent to the prosecution of such offenses as misdemeanors unless the defendant first agreed to plead guilty. 3 Under our system of separation of powers, we cannot tolerate permitting such an advocate to possess the power to prevent the exercise of judicial discretion as a bargaining tool to obtain guilty pleas. A defendant is entitled to have an independent determination of whether he should be held to answer on a felony or a misdemeanor, and this is not possible when the exercise of judicial discretion depends on the 'pleasure of the executive.' (Tenorio, supra, at p. 93, 89 Cal.Rptr. 249, 473 P.2d 993.)

The People contend that the judicial power exercised by a magistrate is not the kind of judicial power contemplated by Tenorio, and that this power is not judicial power within the constitutional meaning of separation of powers because the functions of a magistrate are legislatively determined rather than derived from the Constitution. The People rely on a long line of cases which hold that the system of prosecution by information is subject to control and regulation by the Legislature and that the functions of a magistrate at a preliminary hearing are solely those given by statute. (E.g., People v. Foster, 198 Cal. 112, 243 P. 667; People v. Cohen, 118 Cal. 74, 50 P. 20; People v. Superior Court, 249 Cal.App.2d 727, 57 Cal.Rptr. 818.) They also rely on the differences between the powers of constitutional courts (those established in art. VI, § 1) and the powers of judges of constitutional courts acting solely in the capacity of magistrates. These arguments, however, are not persuasive. Article I, section 8 of the California Constitution provides that offenses formerly required to be prosecuted by indictment may now be prosecuted by information after examination and commitment by a magistrate. Thus while the Legislature may prescribe the detailed duties of a magistrate, the magistrate's authority to conduct a preliminary examination is derived from the Constitution and not from the Legislature. Furthermore, while the powers of a magistrate are not the same as those exercised by a court, his act of holding a defendant to answer a felony or a misdemeanor charge is a judicial act and involves an exercise of judicial discretion. Contrary to the People's argument, the fact that a particular power has been conferred on a magistrate by statute does not pevent the exercise of that power from being a judicial act for purposes of the doctrine of separation of powers. Within the statutory framework, the magistrate at a preliminary hearing acts as an independent arbiter of the issues presented by the adversaries. He weighs evidence, resolves conflicts and gives or withholds credence to particular witnesses (Jones v. Superior Court (1971) 4 Cal.3d 660, 667, 94 Cal.Rptr. 289, 483 P.2d 1241), and just as these are judicial acts, so is the act of holding a defendant to answer. To accept the People's contention would be to reduce this function to an ex parte act and render meaningless the magistrate's independent determination.

The People also contend that since the Legislature was not required to give this power to the magistrates, the Legislature may therefore condition the exercise of the power in any manner it wishes. This argument is likewise not persuasive. Article III, section 1 of the California Constitution provides: 'The powers of state government are legislative, executive, and judicial. Persons charged with the exercise of one power may not exercise either of the others except as permitted by this Constitution.' The prosecution of a case by the district attorney involves an exercise of executive power, and as previously stated, the magistrate's act of holding a defendant to answer is a judicial act for the purposes of this section of the Constitution. Since the exercise of a judicial power may not be conditioned upon the approval of either the executive or legislative branches of government, requiring the district attorney's consent in determining the charge on which a defendant shall be held to answer violates the doctrine of separation of powers. While it may be conceded that the Legislature in the first instance was not required to give the power to a magistrate to determine whether to hold a defendant to answer to a...

To continue reading

Request your trial
119 cases
  • People v. Slaughter
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • March 22, 1984
    ...[hearing]." (Chism v. Superior Court (1981) 123 Cal.App.3d 1053, 1060, 176 Cal.Rptr. 909; see Esteybar v. Municipal Court (1971) 5 Cal.3d 119, 126, 95 Cal.Rptr. 524, 485 P.2d 1140.) Thus, the magistrate "acts as an independent arbiter of the issues presented by the adversaries" 19 and "is e......
  • Mandel v. Myers
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 18, 1981
    ...separation of powers doctrine. (People v. Tenorio (1970) 3 Cal.3d 89, 89 Cal.Rptr. 249, 473 P.2d 993; Esteybar v. Municipal Court (1971) 5 Cal.3d 119, 95 Cal.Rptr. 524, 485 P.2d 1140; People v. Navarro (1972) 7 Cal.3d 248, 102 Cal.Rptr. 137, 497 P.2d 481. See also People v. Superior Court (......
  • Hogya v. Superior Court
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • November 16, 1977
    ...dispatch of legal business" by denying a continuance despite a statutory provision allowing it).18 See Esteybar v. Municipal Court, 5 Cal.3d 119, 95 Cal.Rptr. 524, 485 P.2d 1140; People v. Tenorio, 3 Cal.3d 89, 89 Cal.Rptr. 249, 473 P.2d ...
  • People v. Superior Court (Greer), S.F. 23505
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • March 30, 1977
    ...nature.' (People v. Tenorio (1970) supra, 3 Cal.3d 89, 94, 89 Cal.Rptr. 249, 252, 473 P.2d 993, 996; Esteybar v. Municipal Court (1971) 5 Cal.3d 119, 127, 95 Cal.Rptr. 524, 485 P.2d 1140; People v. Superior Court (On Tai Ho) supra, 11 Cal.3d at p. 65, 113 Cal.Rptr. 21, 520 P.2d 405.) Indeed......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT