The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, recently addressed the issue of whether a city official, who had allegedly relied on advice from the city attorney, could rely on the defense of “entrapment by estoppel” in the state’s felony prosecution of her for violating conflict of interest laws. (People v. Chacon (2004 Daily Journal D.A.R. 4836, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Apr. 14, 2004))
The Municipal Code of the City of Bell Gardens provided that city council members were ineligible for appointment as city manager for one year after ceasing to serve on the city council. While serving on the city council, Maria Chacon sought appointment as city manager. The city council, with Chacon’s vote, passed a new ordinance that eliminated the one-year waiting period and appointed Chacon as city manager. Approximately two years later, the state filed felony charges against Chacon for violating Government Code § 1090 which prohibits conflict of interest by public officials. Chacon defended against the charges by arguing she could not be prosecuted because she relied on the advice of the city attorney when she agreed to be appointed city manager. When the trial court indicated that it might allow Chacon to present this defense, the prosecution chose not to proceed with the case and the trial court dismissed it. The prosecution appealed.
Appellate Court Decision
Chacon’s defense, referred to as “estoppel by entrapment,” is typically used where a government agent authorizes a defendant “to engage in otherwise criminal conduct . . . and the defendant, relying thereon, commits forbidden acts in the mistaken but reasonable, good faith belief that he has in fact been authorized to do so.” The Court of Appeal determined that Chacon could not use the defense of estoppel by entrapment because the government that allegedly advised her – the city– through the city attorney – was not the same as the government that was prosecuting her – the state through the district attorney. According to the Court, “the city of Bell Gardens did not have the authority to bind the People of the State of California to an erroneous interpretation of state conflict of interest statutes.”
The Court therefore sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to exclude evidence relevant to the defense of entrapment by estoppel and to refuse to instruct the jury on the defense.
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