United States: People v. Lexington National Insurance Corporation

In People v. Lexington National Insurance Corporation, 1 Cal. App. 5th 1144 (2016), the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of Lexington National Insurance Corporation’s (“Lexington’s”) request for relief from bail forfeiture, rejecting Lexington’s argument that “the court lacked jurisdiction to declare the bail forfeited, because the defendant in the case, Natalie Duffy, was not required to attend the hearing at which she failed to appear.”

Lexington posted a $50,000 bail bond for Duffy’s release from custody after she was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and resisting arrest. Duffy appeared with her counsel on August 29, 2013. The court set a pretrial hearing for October 1, 2013, telling. Duffy: “You are ordered to go back to Department 87 up on the second floor,. Duffy, October 1st, 9:00 a.m. for your pretrial.” On October 1, 2013,. Duffy’s counsel appeared, but she did not, resulting in the court ordering her $50,000 bail forfeited. “Lexington brought a motion to vacate forfeiture and reinstate the bond pursuant to Penal Code section 1305. The court denied the motion, and entered judgment against Lexington.”

Lexington argued “the trial court lacked jurisdiction to forfeit bail, because Duffy was not required to appear at the pretrial hearing at which the court ordered bail forfeited.”

The Court noted the purpose of a bail bond is to ensure the criminal defendant’s appearance in court and compliance with court orders, where such compliance is enforced by making the surety a debtor for the bond amount should the defendant fail to do so. While forfeiture is generally disfavored, the surety bears the burden of showing the forfeiture should be set aside. The trial court’s determination is subject to an abuse of discretion standard on review, meaning the decision stands unless it “exceeds the bounds of reason, all circumstances being considered.”

The California Penal Code governs bond forfeitures:

The trial court must declare bail forfeited if, without sufficient excuse, a defendant fails to appear at arraignment, trial, judgment, or “[a]ny other occasion prior to the pronouncement of judgment if the defendant's presence in court is lawfully required.” (Pen. Code, § 1305, subd. (a)(4).) In addition, Penal Code section 977, subdivision (a)(1) provides: “In all cases in which the accused is charged with a misdemeanor only, he or she may appear by counsel only, except as provided in paragraphs (2) and (3). If the accused agrees, the initial court appearance, arraignment, and plea may be by video, as provided by subdivision (c).”

Lexington argued that. Duffy “was not lawfully required to appear in court for the pretrial conference and was entitled to have counsel appear for her under Penal Code section 977, subdivision (a)(1)” as she was charged with a misdemeanor.

The Court determined the recent decision in People v. Safety National Casualty Corporation, 62 Cal. 4th 703 (2016) (affirming bail forfeiture based on failure to appear at a rescheduled pretrial conference) controlled, rejecting Lexington’s argument that the Safety National holding was narrowly drawn so as to only encompass criminal defendants charged with a felony:

While Safety National involved a defendant charged with a felony, the court's rationale that a defendant is lawfully required to appear when specifically ordered to do so is equally applicable to a misdemeanor case. We hold that when a court orders a defendant charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor to personally appear in court, his or her “presence in court is lawfully required,” within the meaning of Penal Code section 1305, subdivision (a)(4), and a court may order bail forfeited if that defendant fails to appear.

Here, the court specifically ordered Duffy to appear at the October 1, 2013 pretrial conference by stating: “You are ordered to go back to Department 87 up on the second floor, Ms. Duffy, October 1st, 9:00 a.m. for your pretrial. Thank you.” As a result, Duffy was “‘lawfully required’” to appear at the pretrial conference, and when she failed to do so, the court properly ordered bail forfeited. (Safety National, supra, 62 Cal.4th at p. 716; Pen. Code § 1305, subd. (a)(4).)

Here, as in Safety National, Duffy was commanded to appear for a pretrial conference, and failed to personally appear without sufficient excuse. Accordingly, under Safety National, Duffy's nonappearance provided an adequate basis for the court's order forfeiting the bond.

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