Over the last decade the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board has heard 55 claims regarding erroneous convictions, otherwise known as “PC4900’s”. These claims are based on Penal Code sections 4900 through 4906 that allow any person who has been erroneously convicted of a felony and imprisoned in a California State Prison to be eligible for compensation from the State. A great amount of effort goes into hearing these claims and this Board takes the responsibility of approving or denying these claims very seriously as it follows both the intent and purpose of this state law. Of those 55 claims heard by the Board, 11 were approved, providing total compensation of over $3.2 million dollars to claimants.
The Erroneously Convicted Person statutes (PC4900) were first enacted in 1913. Until the year 2000, compensation was limited to a maximum of $10,000; however, the law was then changed to allow compensation of $100 for each day served in prison after the conviction, with no maximum limit.
The erroneous conviction claim process is complicated and often misunderstood. The claimants must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she did not commit the crime that resulted in his or her conviction and incarceration, and that he or she did not intentionally contribute to the arrest or conviction. The State Legislature created this legislation so that a preponderance of the evidence is just enough evidence to make it more likely than not that the claimant is innocent of the crime.
Some of the misunderstanding comes when an Appellate Court overturns a conviction for reasons such as jury misconduct, improper jury instructions, incompetence of counsel, etc. This ruling does not mean the defendant is innocent, it only means that there was a procedural flaw resulting in the defendant not receiving a fair or adequate trial, and as a result the conviction is overturned.
Although the Board heard only 55 claims over the past 10 years, 132 claims were filed. Many claims are wrongfully filed and do not meet the criteria of the law. This usually means the claimant never went to prison, was never convicted, or waited too long to file a claim. There are also cases where claimants voluntarily withdraw their claim.
When the Board receives an Erroneous Conviction claim, the California Attorney General’s office is provided a copy along with supporting documentation for their review. The Attorney General then conducts an investigation into the merits of the claim.
The Board allows the Attorney General sufficient time to review these claims because there is often a considerable amount of evidence to take into consideration. If not for the Attorney General’s participation in the claims process, the hearing officer likely would not be provided a complete record of the facts relevant to the claim.
Following the investigation, the Attorney General provides a summary of the facts and a recommendation to the Board which is reviewed by the Board’s Hearing Officer. If the Attorney General believes that the claimant has met his or her burden, the Hearing Officer will take that recommendation into consideration when conducting the hearing and writing the proposed decision. If the Attorney General believes that the claim should not be granted, they have the right to oppose the claim at the hearing by offering contrary evidence and by examining the claimant. Following the hearing, the Hearing Officer prepares a recommendation for the Board. The Board then conducts a hearing and renders its decision.
Obviously, the PC4900 process is considerably different than the burden of proof in a criminal trial where the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When a defendant is acquitted by a judge or jury, they are found “not guilty.” A “not guilty” verdict does not mean that the defendant is innocent; it only means that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof. The jury may believe that the defendant is probably guilty, or even quite likely guilty, but unless they are convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence presented by the prosecution, they must render a “not guilty” verdict.
Each PC4900 claim has its own unique set of circumstances, each with its own facts and evidence, all of which need to be closely examined and considered. The Board applies the statutes and case law to these claims and ultimately makes a determination on whether the claimant has met their burden of proof.