Can Criminal Trial Judge Also Impose Sentencing ?

In People v. Strunk (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 265, the court had an administrative procedure under which all sentencing was handled by the same judge to facilitate settlement. (Id. at p. 275, fn. 12.) On appeal, the court disapproved the practice because it conflicted with the "implied natural course of proceedings that are expected by the defendant" which contemplates sentencing by the trial judge. (Id. at p. 275, fn. 13.) The court opined that "such a blanket procedure, without an explicit agreement by the defendant or some showing of good cause, denies the defendant his or her right to an independent full and fair sentencing hearing as contemplated under the Determinate Sentencing Act . . . and the California Rules of Court." (Id. at p. 275.) Although the defendant in that case did not have an Arbuckle right (People v. Arbuckle (1978) 22 Cal.3d 749) to be sentenced by the trial judge, the court opined that the procedural principle should apply. "Absent some agreement by the defendant or the unavailability of the trial judge for other than internal administrative problems or convenience of the court, or some other good cause shown, a defendant should be able to have the trial judge who was familiar with the evidence at the trial impose sentence." (Id. at p. 276, fn. 13.) In People v. Jacobs (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 728, the trial judge scheduled sentencing and arranged to have the case assigned back to him for that purpose. However, on the day for sentencing, the trial judge was apparently unavailable, and the parties appeared before a different judge. Defense counsel sought a continuance because the trial judge would be available in just a few days. However, the new judge asked if there was legal authority prohibiting him imposing sentence. Neither party could provide any. However, the prosecutor argued that the interests served by proceeding immediately were outweighed by the strong preference for having the trial judge impose sentence and the short continuance needed for that to happen. However, the new judge decided that it was necessary to proceed immediately because of "jail overcrowding." (Jacobs, supra, 156 Cal.App.4th at pp. 732-733.) On appeal, the court observed that even in the absence of an Arbuckle right, sentencing by the trial judge is the "preferred procedure." (Jacobs, supra, 156 Cal.App.4th at p. 738.) The court agreed with Strunk that a defendant should be able to have the trial judge impose sentence unless the defendant agreed to another judge, the trial judge was unavailable, or there was good cause to have another judge impose sentence. (Id. at p. 739.) With this in mind, the court found the denial of a continuance an abuse of discretion. The court noted that the trial judge expected to impose sentence, only a short continuance was needed, and "jail overcrowding" did not outweigh the sentencing preference any more than "'administrative problems'" or "'convenience of the court'" would. (Jacobs, supra, 156 Cal.App.4th at p. 740.) The court further found that the error was prejudicial. The court acknowledged an element of speculation in the defendant's claim that the trial judge could have imposed the lower term instead of the middle term and might have dismissed the strike because of various mitigating circumstances. Nevertheless, the court found it possible that the trial judge might have imposed a more lenient sentence. Accordingly, the court's inability to say what the trial judge might have done was sufficient to establish prejudice. Stated differently, the court held that the decision to proceed with sentence under the particular circumstances "was not 'in conformance with the spirit of the law'" and "could be said 'to defeat the ends of substantial justice.'" (Id. at pp. 740-741.) Accordingly, it remanded the matter for sentencing before the trial judge.