PC 1203.4 Relief Does Not Entitle a Defendant to Relief Under PC 851.91

December 26, 2023

This is a synopsis of the Court of Appeal opinion of People v. E.B. (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 47.

The case of appellant E.B. revolves around the denial of his petition to seal his arrest records under Penal Code § 851.91, raising significant questions about the interpretation of legal statutes related to sealing arrest records and the implications of a prior conviction. The appellant’s journey through the legal system began with a guilty plea in 1995 for oral copulation with a minor. Over the years, he pursued various legal avenues to mitigate the effects of this conviction, including obtaining relief under Penal Code section 1203.4, which allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea and led to the dismissal of the complaint against him. This relief was followed by the court granting him a certificate of rehabilitation in 2018 and subsequently reducing his offense to a misdemeanor, which removed him from the sex offender registry.

In 2018, the appellant sought to seal his arrest records under section 851.91, a recent addition to the Penal Code effective from January 1, 2018, part of the Consumer Arrest Record Equity (CARE) Act. This act expanded the eligibility for sealing arrest records to include persons whose arrests did not result in a conviction. However, the superior court denied his petition, interpreting that the relief he received under section 1203.4 did not meet the requirements for sealing under section 851.91.

The appellate court’s discussion delved into the statutory construction of sections 851.91 and 1203.4. The primary question was whether the relief under section 1203.4, which included a withdrawal of a guilty plea and dismissal of the case, equated to a conviction being “vacated” as required under section 851.91. The court’s analysis underscored the importance of the statutory language, focusing on the ordinary meanings of the words and the overall statutory framework. They pointed out that section 851.91’s language, “vacated or reversed on appeal,” should be interpreted disjunctively, meaning either of the conditions could apply. However, they also noted that the legislative intent did not suggest a departure from this interpretation.

Despite this, the court concluded that the relief provided by section 1203.4 did not equate to a conviction being vacated in the sense required by section 851.91. Section 1203.4, while allowing for the dismissal of charges and release from penalties and disabilities of a conviction, does not nullify the fact of the conviction. The statute clearly states that a dismissed conviction still exists for certain legal purposes, like imposing collateral consequences. Therefore, the relief under section 1203.4 was not equivalent to vacating a conviction under section 851.91.

The appellant’s argument that the use of the word “vacation” in the title of section 1203.4 indicated legislative intent to allow for sealing under section 851.91 was rejected. The court held that the title or chapter headings do not alter the explicit scope, meaning, or intent of a statute, especially when the language of the statute is clear. Additionally, the court found that the denial of relief under section 851.91 did not constitute a new “penalty and disability” under section 1203.4.

In summary, the court affirmed the superior court’s decision, denying the appellant’s petition to seal his arrest records under section 851.91. This case highlights the complexities in statutory interpretation, especially concerning the nuances of legal relief available to individuals with prior convictions and the limitations in expunging or sealing criminal records. It underscores the significance of the precise legal language and the importance of understanding the scope and limitations of various forms of legal relief in the context of criminal justice.

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