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Statutory Right to a Jury Trial in California

In People v. Barrett (2012) 54 Cal.4th 1081, the court conducted a bench trial and committed the defendant. (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at pp. 1088-1092.)

On appeal, she claimed that the state and federal Constitutions provided the right to a jury trial and required a jury advisement and personal waiver. (54 Cal.4th at p. 1093.)

Although the statute did not provide the right to a jury trial, the Supreme Court agreed that constitutional considerations warranted recognizing an implied statutory right to a jury trial. (54 Cal.4th at pp. 1097, 1100.)

However, the court rejected advisement and waiver requirements because it found that counsel had exclusive control over whether to waive a jury trial. In reaching this conclusion, the court relied primarily on People v. Masterson (1994) 8 Cal.4th 965.

The court explained that mental retardation is a developmental disability that originates when an individual is a minor and continues, or can be expected to continue, indefinitely, and constitutes a " 'substantial disability for that individual.' " (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at p. 1103.)

Moreover, for purposes of a commitment under section 6500, mental retardation involves " ' " 'significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior,' and appearing in the 'developmental period.' " ' " (54 Cal.4th at p. 1103.)

The court opined that "the significant cognitive and intellectual deficits that the condition entails, which appear early in life and never recede, affect the ability to 'make basic decisions' regarding the conduct of the section 6500 proceeding. Such an individual thus plays a limited 'personal role' in the case, and must rely on counsel to decide all tactical and procedural matters, such as whether to exercise the jury trial right." (Id. at pp. 1103-1104.)

The court rejected a claim that this approach "improperly 'presumes' that a person is mentally retarded before the fact finder has decided the issue." (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at p. 1104.)

The court noted that a commitment petition is filed at the request of "a responsible and interested party (e.g., parent, conservator, correctional or probation official, or regional center director), who presents specific information (reasons) for supposing that the person is mentally retarded and dangerous, in need of treatment, and eligible for commitment. The significance of this request, and its role in providing a foundation for the petition and commitment process, is underscored by the verification requirement. (§ 6502.) ... Second, where a section 6500 petition is filed, the trial court is entitled to a written report prepared by, or at the behest of, the director of the regional center, following an examination of the alleged mentally retarded person. (§ 6504.5.) Regional centers specialize in assessing and assisting mentally retarded and other developmentally disabled persons on an individual basis. Thus, the regional center report obviously serves as a professional pretrial evaluation of the person's history, condition, and behavior, and includes informed recommendations on treatment and placement, including any interim placement pending the hearing. ... In light of these principles and authorities, we conclude that someone like Barrett, who is alleged to be mentally retarded and dangerous under section 6500, is not in a position to personally assert or waive the right to jury trial, to sufficiently comprehend the jury trial advisement, or to override the views of counsel on the subject. Sole control over such tactical and procedural decisions rests with counsel, whether or not the client has been consulted or objects." (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at pp. 1104-1105.)

In People v. Barrett, the defendant claimed that the state and federal Constitutions required a jury advisement and personal waiver under principles of equal protection. She noted that patients facing an extended commitment under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS) (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 5000 et seq.) because they posed a danger due to their mental disease, defect, or disorder were statutorily entitled to such procedural safeguards. (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at p. 1106; see Welf. & Inst. Code, § 5302.) Because she and LPS patients were similarly situated, she claimed the right to those safeguards.

In rejecting her claim, the court explained that persons subject to commitment under the two schemes are not "similarly situated as to the ancillary purpose that an express jury trial advisement, and an express personal waiver, purportedly serve," namely enabling the person to comprehend and control the jury decision. (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at p. 1108.)

What distinguished persons under the two schemes was their "distinct 'mentality' "--i.e., mental retardation versus mental illness. (Ibid.)

The court explained that "mental illness and related disorders are said to be conditions that may arise suddenly and, for the first time, in adulthood. The LPS Act process itself assumes that the need for treatment may be temporary, and that disabling mental disorders may be intermittent or short lived. In addition, because of the complexity of human behavior, and the lack of a long history in every case, mental illness and related disorders may be difficult to diagnose. Where present, however, '"mental illness 'often strikes only limited areas of functioning, leaving other areas unimpaired, and consequently ... many mentally ill persons retain the capacity to function in a competent manner.' " ' These characteristics suggest that the mental conditions that create eligibility for an extended 180-day LPS Act commitment, though they include imminent dangerousness, do not necessarily imply incompetence or a reduced ability to understand, and make decisions about, the conduct of the proceedings. Hence, nothing compels the conclusion that such LPS Act patients will not benefit from the statutory right to a jury trial advisement set forth in section 5302. By contrast, in the case of persons alleged to be mentally retarded and dangerous under section 6500, the commitment process itself raises substantial doubts about their cognitive and intellectual functioning sufficient to limit the personal and procedural role they play. It follows that the two groups are not similarly situated as to the function that Barrett implies an advisement like section 5302 serves--comprehending and controlling the decision whether to request a jury trial. Thus, any disparate statutory treatment with respect to jury trial advisements does not deprive persons like Barrett of equal protection of the law." (Barrett, supra, 54 Cal.4th at pp. 1108-1109.)