California Cases Concerning Irregularities in the SVPA Probable Cause Hearing

In People v. Butler (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 421, the defendant challenged his sexually violent predator commitment on the ground the trial court did no more than conduct a facial review of the commitment petition at the probable cause hearing. (Ibid.) The Court of Appeal agreed the trial court erred by not holding a full evidentiary hearing, but held the Pompa-Ortiz rule applied. (Butler, supra, at. p. 435.) The court concluded the defendant suffered no prejudice because "he was found to be an SVP after a trial at which he was able to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses and call his own witnesses." (Ibid.) In People v. Hayes (2006) 137 Cal.App.4th 34, 44, the People filed a petition to recommit the defendant just as the initial term of commitment was about to expire. Due to numerous delays, the trial on the recommitment petition had not proceeded to trial by the eve of the two-year recommitment period. (Ibid.) As a result, the People filed a second petition to recommit the defendant for another two-year period. (Ibid.) The trial court consolidated and tried the two recommitment petitions. (Ibid.) The probable cause hearing on the second recommitment petition was not conducted until the conclusion of trial. (Ibid.) The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court erred by conducting the probable cause hearing on the second recommitment petition at the conclusion of trial, but held the error was not prejudicial under the Pompa-Ortiz rule. (Hayes, supra, 137 Cal.App.4th at p. 49.) Likening the probable cause hearing under the SVPA to a preliminary hearing in a criminal trial, the court reasoned: "Defendant did not have a probable cause hearing until after the evidentiary phase of trial had concluded and jury deliberations had begun. Thus, he had no pretrial probable cause hearing at all. But like the defendant who has an improper, nonevidentiary hearing--or a criminal defendant who has a preliminary hearing without counsel, in effect no hearing at all--defendant received a full-blown trial and had a jury conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was an SVP within the meaning of section 6600, subdivision (a)(1)." (Hayes, supra, at p. 51.) In In re Wright (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 663, the court concluded the defendant received a fair trial because he was represented by counsel, presented his own expert witness, and was permitted to cross-examine the People's witnesses. As for prejudice, the Wright court stated: "The only possible prejudice the defendant could have suffered was in the fact that the petition actually proceeded to trial; however, our high court concluded that the erroneous denial of a motion to dismiss an information under Penal Code section 995 will not be reversed on appeal in the absence of a showing that the defendant was deprived of a fair trial, or otherwise prejudiced in the ability to mount a defense." (Ibid.) The fact the defendant was "compelled to 'participate in an otherwise fair trial'" therefore did not establish prejudice. (Id. at p. 674.)