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The People v. Agnelli: Unconstitutional Vagueness Issues

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Nov 06, 2023

California Penal Code 637.7 PC makes it a crime to place an electronic tracking device "to determine the location or movement of a person." The law allows tracking devices on vehicles if the owner consents.

But what if the person placing the tracking device is a co-owner of the vehicle? Does that ownership take priority over any privacy issues?

The People v. Agnelli (2021)

This vagueness in the law was addressed in a successful appeal of the California case of People v. Agnelli (2021). This court case centers around Dustin Livingston Agnelli, who was convicted for using an electronic tracking device under California Penal Code 637.7 PC. Upon appeal, this conviction was overturned for unconstitutional vagueness regarding the law.

Penal Code 637.7 PC says, “(a) No person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person.

(b) This section shall not apply when the registered owner, lessor, or lessee of a vehicle has consented to use the electronic tracking device with respect to that vehicle.

(c) This section shall not apply to a law enforcement agency's lawful use of an electronic tracking device.

(d) As used in this section, “electronic tracking device” means any device attached to a vehicle or other movable thing that reveals its location or movement by transmitting electronic signals.

(e) A violation of this section is a misdemeanor.

(f) A violation of this section by a person, business, firm, company, association, partnership, or corporation licensed under Division 3 (commencing with Section 5000) of the Business and Professions Code shall constitute grounds for revocation of the license issued to that person, business, firm, company, association, partnership, or corporation, pursuant to the provisions that provide for the revocation of the license as set forth in Division 3 (commencing with Section 5000) of the Business and Professions Code.

What About the Alleged Crime and Initial Trial?

Dustin Livingston Agnelli, the defendant, was charged with three crimes, including the following:

  • Using an electronic tracking device, defined under Penal Code 637.7(a) PC,
  • Attempting to dissuade a witness from testifying, defined under Penal Code 136.1(a)(2) PC, and
  • Violating a protective order defined under Penal Code 166(c) PC.

These charges resulted from an incident where Agnelli's estranged wife found a tracking device on her car during a trip to Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. The victim initiated divorce proceedings against Agnelli in October 2016. They have a son, who is five years old.

Agnelli admitted to placing the device on the vehicle, which the divorcing couple still co-owned, but he claimed it was placed there to prevent theft during family trips, not to track his ex.

California Jury Trial

In response to these charges, Agnelli's attorneys moved to dismiss the first count of using an electronic traffic device, claiming ambiguity around the exception provided in PC 647.7(b): "This section shall not apply when the registered owner, lessor, or lessee of a vehicle has consented to the use of the electronic tracking device with respect to that vehicle."

The defense argued that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction because "the law is unclear if there is more than one registered owner." The court denied this motion.

The jury also found ambiguity in the exception and sought clarity on whether one or both registered owners needed to consent to use a tracking device. The court stated it couldn't answer due to the statute's vagueness. This led to another request by the defense counsel to dismiss Count One as unconstitutionally vague. However, the court again denied the motion to dismiss.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Agnelli of using an electronic tracking device but was not guilty of the other two charges. Consequently, he was placed on three years of informal probation, with the imposition of his sentence suspended.

What About the Appeal and Result?

Following his conviction, Agnelli filed an appeal arguing that the statute prohibiting unauthorized use of an electronic tracking device was unconstitutionally vague as applied to a co-owned vehicle.

California Criminal Appeals Lawyer

This argument invoked legal precedents regarding the interpretation of statutes and constitutional law. Appeals such as these often hinge on the interpretation of statutory language and its constitutionality. In this case, the focus was on whether the statute could be applied to situations where the accused's vehicle being tracked was co-owned.

Defendant Dustin Livingston Agnelli appeals his conviction for using an electronic tracking device (Pen. Code, 637.7, subd. (a)). He contends section 637.7, subdivision (a) is unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. Opinion: “We agree and reverse.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court agreed with Agnelli's contention that the statute was unconstitutionally vague when applied to co-owned vehicles and overturned his conviction.  

Acting Presiding Judge Terri Flynn-Peister wrote in her ruling: "The prosecuting attorney stated to the jury in his rebuttal argument: 'You decide whether that's clear or not.' When the jury submitted its question, the trial court acknowledged this was a legal issue but could not provide additional clarity. This places a risk that the jury will convict on a subjective basis. It is undisputed there is prejudice to Agnelli due to this error."

What Are the Implications?

There's a strong presumption to uphold legislative enactments unless their unconstitutionality is clear, positive, and unmistakable. The vagueness doctrine prohibits the enforcement of a statute if its meaning and application are unclear to people of average intelligence.

This case has significant implications for both the legal system and future cases. The decision sets a precedent that could affect how laws regarding electronic surveillance are interpreted and applied, particularly in cases involving co-owned properties. This could lead to changes in how such cases are prosecuted and potentially influence the drafting of future legislation.

The Agnelli case also highlights the ongoing tension between privacy rights and the use of technology. As technology advances, cases like this will likely become more common, forcing the legal system to evolve and adapt continuously.

There were also political and social factors at play in this case. Society's increasing concern over privacy rights, coupled with the rise in the use of technology for surveillance, likely influenced the court's decision.

These factors will continue to shape the legal landscape, making cases like Agnelli increasingly relevant. Contact our California criminal defense lawyers for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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