SOCHA v. DIRECTOR DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES

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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 2, California.

William Donald SOCHA, Petitioner and Appellant, v. DIRECTOR, DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES of the State of California, Defendant and Respondent.

Civ. 33635.

Decided: February 19, 1970

Bernard Lauer, Los Angeles, for appellant. Thomas C. Lynch, Atty. Gen., John C. .hamilton, Deputy Atty. Gen., for respondent.

In April 1966 petitioner Socha pleaded guilty in the Municipal Court of Los Angeles to the charge of drunk driving (Veh.Code, s 23102(a)).

In March 1968 Socha was charged in the Municipal Court of Downey with drunk driving (Veh.Code, s 23102(a)), and, according to the Downey court clerk's minutes, the charge was subsequently amended to allege a prior conviction for drunk driving in April 1966 in Inglewood (sic). Socha denied the velidity of the prior conviction and moved to strike it. The Downey court granted the motion, and the clerk's minutes recite that the court struck the allegation on the prior conviction for drunk driving on the ground that in the former proceeding Socha did not receive proper advice about his constitutional rights and did not intelligently waive his right to counsel. The Downey court then found Socha guilty on the pending charge, imposed a fine, and recommended against suspension of his driving privileges, a recommendation which appeared in the abstract of judgment sent to respondent Department of Motor Vehicles as a check of the box marked ‘DMV NOT TO SUSPEND.’ No appeal was taken from the judgment of the Downey Municipal Court striking the allegation of a prior conviction, and that judgment became final. (People v. Burke, 47 Cal.2d 45, 51, 53—54, 301 P.2d 241; 29 Cal.Jur.2d Judgments, s 333.) However, it is not an adjudication that petitioner did not in fact suffer the conviction. As the court said in Burke (p. 51, 301 P.2d pp. 244—245): ‘The striking or dismissal of a charge of prior conviction (regardless of whether it has or has not been admitted or established by evidence) is not the equivalent of a determination that defendant did not in fact suffer the conviction (see People v. Simpson (1944), 66 Cal.App.2d 319, 329, 152 P.2d 339; People v. Horowitz (1933), 131 Cal.App.Supp. 791, 794, 19 P.2d 874; * * *.’

Thereafter, the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Socha's driving privileges under the provision of the Vehicle Code which requires suspension of a licensee's driving privileges for one year whenever he has suffered two convictions for drunk driving within seven years (s 13352(c)). On this, Socha petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court for a writ of mandate to compel the Department to reinstate his driving privileges. At the hearing on the writ, the superior court concluded that the Downey court's order striking the allegation of a prior Los Angeles conviction did not amount to an adjudication of the invalidity of the Los Angeles judgment and therefore the superior court should adjudicate de novo the validity of the prior judgment of conviction. When Socha produced no evidence to establish the invalidity of the 1966 Los Angeles judgment, the superior court found the judgment presumptively valid and refused to issue the writ. Socha appeals.

A municipal court is a court of limited jurisdiction having only the powers granted to it by constitution or statute. (Cal.Const. Art. VI, s 5.) A municipal court possesses neither general equitable jurisdiction, nor jurisdiction to grant declaratory relief, nor jurisdiction to vacate a final judgment, nor, at the time relevant here, jurisdiction to vacate a final judgment of its own. (Bloniarz v. Roloson, 70 A.C. 150, 74 Cal.Rptr. 285, 449 P.2d 221; cf. Code Civ.Proc. s 89, subd. 1(b).) Its authority to pass on the validity of a prior drunk driving conviction is restricted to a determination whether to take into account a pleaded prior conviction in imposing sentence on the current offense and in submitting a recommendation to the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Veh.Code, ss 23102, 13210.) If the licensee has in fact suffered a prior drunk driving conviction within seven years the recommendation of the municipal court against suspension of the licensee's driving privileges is ineffectual. (Veh.Code, s 13352(c).)

A superior court, on the other hand, is a court of general jurisdiction empowered to examine the validity of its own or another court's judgment for any purpose. It may entertain a direct attack on the validity of a judgment and it may grant equitable or declaratory relief with respect to its own or another court's judgment. (Caldwell v. Taylor, 218 Cal. 471, 475, 23 P.2d 758, 88 A.L.R. 1194; Olivera v. Grace, 19 Cal.2d 570, 575, 122 P.2d 564, 140 A.L.R. 1328; Sternbeck v. Buck, 148 Cal.App.2d 829, 832, 307 P.2d 970; Restatement, Judgments, s 114.) If an attack on a prior final judgment is to be launched it seems obvious the superior court is the proper forum in which to do it. (Bloniariz v. Roloson, 70 A.C. 150, 153—155, 74 Cal.Rptr. 285, 449 P.2d 221.) When such an attack is properly mounted, the superior court is both authorized and required to proceed with an independent hearing on the matter without being concluded or restricted under principles of res judicata or collateral estoppel by action taken with respect to the prior final judgment by a court of limited jurisdiction. (29 Cal.Jur.2d, Judgments, s 223; Estate of Freud, 134 Cal. 333, 66 P. 476.) The general rule appears in Restatement, Judgments, section 71: ‘Where a court has incidentally determined a matter which it would have had no jurisdiction to determine in an action brought directly to determine it, the judgment is not conclusive in a subsequent action brought to determine the matter directly.’ The Downey Municipal Court would have had no jurisdiction to determine the validity of a Los Angeles Municipal Court judgment in an action directly brought for that purpose. Such a determination could only be made by a superior Court.

The decision in Hasson v. Cozens, 1 Cal.3d 576, 83 Cal.Rptr. 161, 463 P.2d 385, does not hold to the contrary. In that case the superior court held invalid plaintiff's prior Los Angeles Municipal Court conviction for drunk driving. As evidence before it the superior court had—in addition to an Inglewood Municipal Court order striking the allegation of a prior Los Angeles conviction from a subsequent drunk driving charge and sentencing plaintiff as a first offender—supporting declarations from plaintiff setting forth facts which showed that he had been deprived of his constitutional rights in the Los Angeles Municipal Court proceeding. As the Supreme Court observed, the superior court ‘did in effect, determine the merits of the case by an independent hearing de novo,’ and its issuance of the writ was based on direct evidence of the invalidity of the earlier judgment. Hasson explicitly rejected the Department of Motor Vehicles' contention that the Los Angeles Municipal Court's postconviction order (which refused to vacate its judgment of conviction on plaintiff's claim that he had not expressly waived his right to counsel) was res adjudicata on the validity of the Los Angeles judgment and hence binding on the superior court. Consequently, Hasson does not stand for the proposition that a municipal court ruling on the validity or invalidity of a final judgment is binding on the superior court. Rather, the decision merely points up the fact that the Inglewood Municipal Court's order striking the allegation of a prior conviction and sentencing petitioner as a first offender was final and could not be challenged.

At bench the action of the Downey Municipal Court in 1968 in striking the allegation of a prior drunk driving conviction on constitutional grounds is also final and cannot be challenged, but that action does not bind the Department of Motor Vehicles in the exercise of its statutory responsibility with respect to licensees nor does it bind the superior court in passing on the validity of the 1966 Los Angeles Municipal Court judgment. The position of the Department of Motor Vehicles may be clarified by assuming the instance of a licensee previously convicted of drunk driving in one municipal court who is sentenced a year later in another court as a first offender. When the abstract of judgment of the latter conviction reaches the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department is required by section 13352(c) to suspend the offender's driving privileges. The Department does not know whether the sentencing court knew of the earlier conviction, or whether it concluded the earlier conviction was invalid, or whether it determined to temper justice with mercy by striking the allegation of a prior conviction from the complaint. For licensing purposes the records of the Department of Motor Vehicles continue to reflect the existence of two judgments of conviction for drunk driving. (Cook v. Bright, 208 Cal.App.2d 98, 25 Cal.Rptr. 116.) Likewise the records of the municipal court in which the first conviction occurred continue to reflect the existence of a valid final judgment. Both the Department and the municipal court are entitled to be advised of the invalidity of the earlier judgment through formal adjudication by a court of competent jurisdiction based on findings of fact and conclusions of law. Accordingly, if petitioner seeks to avoid the consequences of a final judgment he must do so by application to a court which has jurisdiction to grant him appropriate relief. (Sternbeck v. Buck, 148 Cal.App.2d 829, 832, 307 P.2d 970.)

In the instant case petitioner properly applied to the superior court for a writ of mandate, but for reasons difficult to fathom he produced no evidence in that court to establish the invalidity of the prior Los Angeles judgment except a copy of the Downey court clerk's minutes.1 The Downey court clerk's minutes refer to the charge of a prior Inglewood (sic) drunk driving conviction, and the grant of a motion to strike the charge from the complaint. Presumably, the reference to a prior Inglewood conviction was a clerical inadvertence, and the conviction struck by the court was in fact the prior Los Angeles judgment. Nevertheless, we find the error worthy of comment, because it provides a timely reminder of the unreliability of third-hand evidence as proof of fact and of the inadvisability of accepting hearsay twice-removed as a basis on which to invalidate a final judgment of a court of record.

The proper method of attack on a prior judgment of conviction for drunk driving in order to challenge a mandatory revocation of driving privileges has been a subject of considerable confusion during recent years (Mitchell v. Orr, 268 Cal.App.2d 813, 74 Cal.Rptr. 407; Stenback v. Municipal Court, 272 A.C.A. 27, 76 Cal.Rptr. 917; De La Vigne v. Dept. Motor Vehicles, 272 A.C.A. 914, 77 Cal.Rptr. 675; Williams v. Dept. Motor Vehicles, 2 Cal.App.3d 949, 83 Cal.Rptr. 76) and petitioner may have reasonably believed he was not required to present direct evidence to the superior court to prove the invalidity of his prior conviction in the Los Angeles Municipal Court but he could rely entirely on recitals in the clerk's minutes of the Downey Municipal Court. Because of this confusion we remanded the cause to the superior court in order to give petitioner an opportunity to present direct evidence to that court of the invalidity of the Los Angeles judgment, as for example, the record of the proceedings before the Los Angeles Municipal Court and testimony of, or a declaration by, petitioner covering the events of that action. (Cf. Byers v. Justice Court, 71 A.C. 1083, 80 Cal.Rptr. 553, 458 P.2d 465.)

The judgment is reversed, and the superior court is directed to hold a new hearing on the petition for the writ.

FOOTNOTES

1.  A possible explanation lies in the fact that In Re Johnson, 62 Cal.2d 325, 329—330, 42 Cal.Rptr. 228, 398 P.2d 420, the case which held invalid the method then used to advise traffic offenders of their rights in the Los Angeles Municipal Court, was decided 28 January 1965. According to papers attached to petitioner's opening brief, which had not been made a part of the record before the superior court, the clerk's minutes of the Los Angeles Municipal Court show that on 13 April 1966 before Judge Loren Miller petitioner was ‘duly arraigned, informed of the charge against him and of his legal rights.’ Presumably any deficiencies in the procedure followed by the Los Angeles Municipal Court before Johnson in advising defendants of their constitutional rights had been remedied. It may turn out that the late Judge Miller, a nationally recognized authority on constitutional law and civil rights, was at the time in question correctly advising defendants who appeared before him of their constitutional rights and their right to counsel.

FLEMING, Associate Justice.

ROTH, P.J., and WRIGHT, J., concur.