Firearm Use Enhancement in California

In People v. Chambers (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1047, the defendant was charged with robbery, and a firearm-use enhancement was alleged. In language substantively identical to section Penal Code 1158, section 1158a requires an express finding on such an allegation. Following a court trial, the defendant was convicted of the substantive offense but the court did not mention the firearm-use allegation. Nonetheless, the trial court imposed a sentence which included 10 years for the enhancement. The appellate court held that the failure to comply with the statutory express-finding requirement did not compel striking the firearm-use enhancement because the court, in imposing a 10-year prison term for the enhancement, "impliedly" made the required finding. (Chambers, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1048, 1051.) The court noted, however, that "If we had any doubt about the trial court's finding, we would resolve it in favor of the defendant." (Id. at p. 1051.) The court further observed that its refusal to construe the court's silence as a finding of not true "should not be read as placing our imprimatur on the manner in which this judgment was rendered. The lack of an express finding is in violation of the penal statutes which dictate how a prior conviction allegation is to be adjudicated. The . . . failure to make the required finding represents the antithesis of how a trial court should proceed." (Ibid.) Moreover, "the People also have an obligation to see that the trial court actually makes an express finding on a prior conviction allegation." (Ibid.) The Chambers court based its holding on People v. Clair (1992) 2 Cal.4th 629: "In Clair the defendant was charged with murder and two counts of burglary. The information alleged that he had been previously convicted of a serious felony. The murder and burglary charges were tried to a jury, which returned guilty verdicts. The defendant waived jury on the prior serious felony allegation and consented to trial by the court. The trial court did not expressly find that the prior allegation was true, but it imposed a five-year prison term for the prior serious felony conviction." (Chambers, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1050-1051.) In Clair, the prosecution raised an argument on behalf of the defendant that the sentence on the serious felony enhancement had to be set aside because no finding on the underlying prior conviction had been made. (Clair, at p. 691, fn. 17.) The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining: "During the penalty phase, defendant waived trial by jury on the allegation and consented to trial by the court. At the same time, he stipulated that in deciding the issue, the court could consider the evidence that the People intended to introduce before the jury in order to prove the conviction as a circumstance in aggravation under the rubric of a prior felony conviction. Such evidence was in fact introduced, including what the court referred to as 'certified copies of the conviction.' The question was subsequently argued to the court. At sentencing, the court impliedly--but sufficiently--rendered a finding of true as to the allegation when it imposed an enhancement expressly for the underlying prior conviction. Contrary to defendant's claim, there is no failure of proof. Neither is there any reason to vacate the enhancement--and less reason still to disturb the penalty of death." (Ibid.)