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Ninth Circuit: California’s Prop. 115 Not Unconstitutional

By Michael Brodheim

The Ninth Circuit has held that California’s Proposition 115, known as the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act, does not violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.

Adopted by California voters in 1990, Prop. 115 added constitutional and statutory language to permit a probable cause determination at a preliminary hearing to be based on hearsay evidence presented by a qualified law enforcement officer.

Neil Peterson was charged in 2005 with statutory violations in connection with his ownership and operation of an automobile dismantling site (a “chop shop”). A magistrate judge found probable cause to hold Peterson for trial based on the testimony of the lone prosecution witness at Peterson’s preliminary hearing. That lone witness, the investigating officer, testified as to the hearsay statements of other witnesses against Peterson. Ultimately, a jury convicted Peterson of a number of misdemeanor counts.

Subsequently, Peterson filed suit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that Prop. 115 violated his constitutional rights under the Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. He sought damages as well as injunctive and declaratory relief. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), the district court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

On appeal, Peterson dropped his Fourth Amendment claim. In a relatively straightforward opinion, the Ninth Circuit disposed of his remaining claims, viz., that the admission of hearsay evidence at his preliminary hearing violated his rights, under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, to confront the witnesses against him; and that, in order to satisfy the requirements of due process, a preliminary hearing must include the right of confrontation.

As to the Sixth Amendment claim, the Ninth Circuit noted that the preliminary hearing itself is not constitutionally required; therefore, there can be no constitutionally-required procedures at such a hearing. Moreover, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the right of confrontation (including cross-examination) exists primarily to give a jury the opportunity to weigh the demeanor of witnesses at trial; it has distinguished a preliminary hearing in this regard as providing “a much less searching exploration into the merits of a case than a trial.” Barber v. Page, 390 U.S. 719, 725 (1968).

As to the Fourteenth Amendment claim, the Ninth Circuit, noting that hearsay is admissible before a federal grand jury, reasoned that “(i)f the phrase ‘due process of law’ in the Fifth Amendment does not prohibit the use of hearsay in grand jury proceedings, then the same phrase in the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be read to prohibit the use of hearsay evidence at a preliminary hearing.” See: Peterson v. State of California, 604 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Peterson v. State of California