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Criminal,
California Supreme Court

Aug. 31, 2021

Court limits hearsay evidence in predator commitment proceedings

The justices remanded petitioner Jeffrey Walker’s case back to the Court of Appeal with instructions to remand the case to the San Francisco Superior Court for a new probable cause hearing.

Trial judges may not admit certain hearsay evidence in psychological evaluation reports in finding probable cause to commit an individual under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The court said a new probable cause hearing must be held for Jeffrey Walker, who was committed in 2015.

The court's unanimous ruling, written by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, found that contrary to the Court of Appeal's reasoning, subdivisions of the act do not create an exception that allows hearsay involving "non-predicate offenses" to be introduced via psychological evaluation reports. Jeffrey Walker v. Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco, 2021 DJDAR 9005.

"What we hold is that nothing in the statutory language, its legislative history, its place in the broader SVPA statutory scheme, or comparisons to other statutory provisions indicates the existence of a hearsay exception for such hearsay in expert evaluations," Cuéllar wrote. "Nor does anything in the SVPA or our case law indicate that the Legislature -- in creating the hearing as a safeguard for SVP candidates to test the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the state's petition and prevent meritless ones from proceeding to trial -- must have created an exception for hearsay on non predicate offenses to be introduced via evaluations."

Walker was represented in the case by Erwin F. Fredrich of San Francisco. Deputy Attorney General Moona Nandi represented the City and County of San Francisco.

In 2015, the San Francisco District Attorney's office filed a petition to commit Walker as a sexually violent predator as he neared the end of his state prison term for pandering. Two mental health evaluations supported the petition and both psychologists concluded Walker satisfied the statutory criteria for commitment.

In their evaluations, the psychologists discussed Walker's 1990 conviction for a rape, a predicate offense under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, as well as the alleged facts of two charged sex crimes that did not result in convictions from a probation report and police inspector's affidavit.

The court agreed with the petitioner's argument that the trial court admitted inadmissible hearsay -- the factual details of two rape offenses that Walker had been charged with, but not convicted of -- in the psychologists' evaluations when finding probable cause and that the trial court's decision to admit the hearsay concerning the two non-predicate offenses represented prejudicial error.

Although the court's findings were unanimous, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote a concurring opinion expressing concerns that the court's ruling "will complicate, if not frustrate, the intended screening function" of Sexually Violent Predator Act probable cause hearings and urged the legislature to provide additional guidance on how to properly conduct such hearings.

"Like a probable cause hearing before a criminal trial, the purpose of a section 6602 hearing is, in general terms, to permit the court to ensure that there is an adequate evidentiary foundation for an SVP finding," she wrote.

"By requiring the county to present admissible evidence of any non predicate offenses that form a part of that foundation, and potentially of any other hearsay found in the evaluation reports, our decision will convert the probable cause hearing into a proceeding barely distinguishable from a subsequent trial on the merits," which would result in imposing a sizable burden on counsel and the courts that would likely be duplicated at trial, she said.

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Kamila Knaudt

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