Criminal Law

Any Error in Trial Court’s Denial of Defendant’s Challenges for Cause to Two Prospective Jurors Was Not Reversible and Was Cured by Defendant’s Peremptory Challenges to Those Jurors.

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In People v. Black (2014) 58 C.4th 912, 169 C.R.3d 363, 320 P.3d 800, defendant, charged with animal cruelty, challenged for cause two prospective jurors, one whose religious views toward animals made her doubt her ability to be impartial, and one who said that his abuse as a child made him concerned about his ability to be impartial and that he had “already sided” with the prosecution due to defendant’s courtroom conduct. After the court denied the challenges for cause, defendant used peremptory challenges to excuse these two jurors. When he had exhausted his peremptory challenges, defendant requested two additional challenges to remove other objectionable jurors, including a process server who had attempted to serve an unlawful detainer summons with a police escort on someone with the same name as defendant, but who may have been a different person. The trial court denied defendant’s request, and the jury ultimately convicted defendant of all charges. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that the trial court had erred in denying the challenges for cause, but that the error did not require reversal because defendant failed to show that an incompetent juror sat on his case. Held, affirmed.

(a) Challenges for cause are constitutionally guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment, and the state Constitution provides the same general right to a fair trial and an impartial jury. However, the right to peremptory challenges is statutory and is not of constitutional dimension. (58 C.4th 916.)

(b) The mere loss of a peremptory challenge does not automatically constitute a violation of the federal constitutional right to a fair trial and impartial jury. If no biased or legally incompetent juror has served on a defendant's jury, the judgment against him or her does not suffer from a federal constitutional infirmity, even if the defendant had to exercise one or more peremptory challenges to excuse prospective jurors whom the court should have excused for cause. (58 C.4th 916, citing Ross v. Oklahoma (1988) 487 U.S. 81, 108 S.Ct. 2273, 101 L.Ed.2d 80, 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §585.)

(c) At one time, it was held in California that the right to exercise peremptory challenges was absolute, and when a defendant was compelled to exhaust peremptory challenges because of the erroneous denial of challenges for cause, the error is prejudicial. (58 C.4th 917, citing People v. Helm (1907) 152 C. 532, 93 P. 99, 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §584.) However, in light of Ross, case law now reflects that an erroneous denial of a challenge for cause to one juror is not reversible error when it deprives a defendant only of a peremptory challenge to another juror. So long as the jury that sits is impartial, the fact that the defendant had to use a peremptory challenge to achieve that result does not mean that a constitutional violation occurred. (58 C.4th 917, citing People v. Yeoman (2003) 31 C.4th 93, 2 C.R.3d 186, 72 P.3d 1166, 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §585.)

(d) Here, the Attorney General does not refute defendant’s claim that the trial court erroneously denied his challenges for cause to the two jurors, and thus it is assumed that the trial court erred. But defendant cured the error by using two of his statutory peremptory challenges to strike those jurors. Eventually, defendant exhausted his remaining challenges and was consequently unable to remove a juror, whom he agreed was not challengeable for cause, but whom he personally found objectionable for other lawful reasons. Forcing defendant to use peremptory challenges to remove the prospective jurors violated his right to a fair trial and impartial jury only if he was left unable to prevent the seating of another otherwise incompetent juror, i.e., one who should have been removed for cause. Because defendant does not contend that the objectionable juror should have been removed for cause, he has failed to demonstrate reversible error. (58 C.4th 917, 918.)

(e) Dictum in People v. Bittaker (1989) 48 C.3d 1046, 259 C.R. 630, 774 P.2d 659, 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §584, which states that a defendant's right to a fair trial and impartial jury is denied even if no incompetent juror sits on the case, is rejected and has no applicability in determining whether a defendant has been prejudiced by a denial of a challenge for cause. (58 C.4th 919.)

In a separate concurring opinion, one justice observed that a reviewing court’s inquiry into prejudice on this issue should examine whether a trial court's errors substantially disadvantaged the defendant relative to the prosecution in the opportunity to remove jurors for lawful reasons short of cause, e.g., if there were multiple erroneous denials of the defendant’s challenges for cause and the defendant was required to use multiple peremptory challenges to remove these jurors. But a defendant has not suffered substantial disadvantage with respect to the prosecution from the seating of a single objectionable juror. (58 C.4th 922.)

Witkin References

On challenges to individual jurors generally, see 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §556 et seq.

On procedure in exercising challenges, see 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §580 et seq.

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Last updated
Monday, August 18, 2014