California Supreme Court invokes harmless error rule in capital case regarding phone records

This case does not have much applicability, other than the fact that it’s the very first to invoke the harmless error rule for any possible Carpenter violation.

The defendant was accused of being a serial burglar who committed a murder in the course of one of the burglaries. He was charged in California State Court with first degree murder, conspiracy to commit robbery and burglary and two counts of [*380] residential burglary. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The prosecution presented telephone records and testimony showing telephone calls among the various participants during relevant times. The records were obtained by a Stored Communications Act court order. The defense sought to suppress the records because of the lack of a warrant, which was denied.

The California Supreme Court in my view could easily have ruled that these records are not implicated by the Carpenter decision, but chose instead to state that “(I)t is not clear whether Carpenter’s holding would apply here. But we need not decide the question. Any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence merely showed that some of the alleged conspirators communicated by telephone at certain times; the content of the communications was not revealed. Although relevant, the evidence was unimportant in light of the trial as a whole.”

The case is People v. Anderson, S138474, 5 Cal. 5th 372, 420 P.3d 825, 2018 Cal. LEXIS 4698, 235 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1, 2018 WL 3150946.

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