How Does One Evaluate An Honest and Upright Life?

Can a person live an “honest and upright life” and conform to and obey the “laws of the land” while confined?

In 2011, Misael Vences Maya, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., pleaded guilty to driving under the influence with 6 prior DUI convictions and possession of methamphetamine.  He had also served two prior prison terms.  He was advised of the immigration consequences of his plea, which included possible deportation.  Maya was sentenced to 4 years 8 months prison without probation.  In late 2012, he completed his prison term and was immediately transferred to the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.  Because of his felony methamphetamine conviction, DHS commenced removal proceedings pursuant to 8 U.S.C. §1227(a)(2)(B)(i).  While still in immigration custody, California voters approved Proposition 47.  Maya then successfully applied to have his felony methamphetamine conviction reduced to a misdemeanor.  Because it was reduced to a misdemeanor, he then sought to have the conviction expunged pursuant to California Penal Code  §1203.4a.

Maya had to check off all of the following requirements in order to expunge his now misdemeanor methamphetamine conviction under §1203.4a :

(1) was convicted of a misdemeanor and not granted probation – X

(2) allowed one year to lapse from the date of the pronouncement of the judgment – X

(3) fully complied with and performed the sentence imposed by the court – X

(4) is not currently serving a sentence for any offense and is not charged with any crime – X

(5) lived an honest and upright life and conformed to and obeyed the laws of the land since the judgment was pronounced – ??

Maya clearly met requirements (1)-(4). Maya argued that he met the 5th requirement because while in custody he obeyed all laws and rules, plus he participated in fire camp and alcoholics anonymous.  The trial court disagreed stating that because he had never been released from custody, there was no ability to determine if he’d lived a law-abiding life.  A divided panel of a California Court of Appeal agreed stating that “a model prisoner is not necessarily a model citizen.”

Late last week, the California Supreme Court addressed this issue in People v. Maya (S255371) and reversed.

The key language in the statute centers on timing – “since the judgment was pronounced.”  The Court held that because the timing of the “honest and upright life” inquiry begins at “the date of pronouncement of judgment”, and not one year since the date of release of custody, it strongly suggests that a defendant’s behavior during time spent in custody is to be examined.

I did some research on this case last summer and spent some time at the California State Archives researching the legislative history of this law.  It was signed by former Governor Pat Brown and enacted into law in July 1963.  Up until then, felons who had completed their sentences and thereafter lived an “honest and upright life” were eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation.  Misdemeanants granted probation who successfully completed their sentences were similarly eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation.  But, in a letter written on June 22, 1963, by California Assemblyman George E. Danielson to Governor Brown, the “lowest grade of misdemeanant” (i.e. “the one who is merely fined or who serves a jail sentence but is not required to serve a period of probation”) was not provided with the same opportunity.  The bill had very little opposition.

However, on July 8, 1963, Walter L. Barkdull, Executive Officer of the California Board of Corrections, wrote a letter to the Governor with his opinion “that some problems are likely to develop in its application.” Specifically, he stated that the “time period of one year from the date of pronouncement of judgment. . .  [P]robably should have read: “after the lapse of one year from the date of completion of the court’s sentence.”  He went on to state:

“As it stands, it is quite possible that the person will have spent six months of that year serving his sentence, and, in some cases, he may even have spent the full year in the county jail and, thus, under this bill, be theoretically able to march into court the day he gets out of jail and demand that the court set aside the guilty verdict.”

This concern fell on deaf ears and the bill was signed into law five days later.

Maya – with 7 DUI convictions, a meth conviction, and two prior jail terms – has an obvious problem with drinking and driving.  While in custody, he was physically prohibited from operating a motor vehicle.  So, how can a court evaluate this aspect of his problem past?  Perhaps someone should have listened to Mr. Barkdull’s concerns and started the timing of the evaluation from the date of release from custody.  That is the only true way a person can be evaluated for living an “honest and upright life” and obeying the “laws of the land.”  Only then can someone like Maya, who is exposed to his vices, retreat down an old path or forge a new route.

Not all is lost in this case because the California Supreme Court remanded it to the Court of Appeal to examine whether the trial court’s denial of expungement was appropriate even if his time in custody is relevant to the honest and upright life inquiry.