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California: Probation Condition Cannot Prohibit Court Access

The California Court of Appeal has held that a condition of probation barring a juvenile offender's access to the courthouse was unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.

In 2010, California juvenile offender Jose N. was made a ward of the juvenile court when he admitted to participating in a criminal street gang. When Jose subsequently committed first-degree burglary, he was continued as a ward of the court on April 5, 2011.

One of the conditions of his probation, described as the "courthouse prohibition," directed that he was "not to appear in or about any court" unless he was a party to a proceeding or subpoenaed to appear at a hearing. The purpose of the condition apparently was to prevent gang members from trying to intimidate witnesses who appear in court.

Although Jose did not object to the condition when it was imposed, he argued on appeal that it was unconstitutionally overbroad and violated the California Constitution. The Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, noted that the state did not argue that Jose had waived his argument by failing to object. The state also agreed that a narrower condition was warranted.

The appellate court found the parties' "primary disagreement" to be the exact language of a modified probation condition and whether the juvenile court or the Court of Appeal should change the condition.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal found it "appropriate ... to strike the courthouse prohibition condition and remand the matter for imposition of a narrower probation condition by the juvenile court in the first instance." The juvenile court was directed to "seek to establish a probation condition that has the least impact on the right of access to the court for legitimate purposes consistent with the rehabilitation and reformation of the juveniles who are subject to the condition." See: In re Jose N., California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, Case No. F062244 (App Ct., 5th Dist., April 23, 2012) (unpublished).

The Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion in a separate case involving a juvenile who had been subjected to a similar "courthouse prohibition" as a condition of probation. See: In re Francisco J., California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, Case No. F064179 (Cal.App. 5 Dist., July 18, 2012) (unpublished); 2012 WL 2918464.

California trial courts apparently continue to impose such unconstitutional conditions on probationers despite prior appellate rulings on this precise issue – including a 2009 decision that struck down a condition of probation that barred an adult defendant from being within 500 feet of a courthouse. See: People v. Perez, 176 Cal.App.4th 380, 97 Cal.Rptr.3d 632 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2009) [PLN, March 2011, p.27].

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Related legal case

In re Jose N.