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Individuals convicted of crimes that cause another person’s death could now find themselves digging deeper into their bank accounts to compensate their victim’s survivors. In a 6-1 ruling (.pdf) Monday, the California Supreme Court held for the first time that judges have the authority to issue direct restitution orders requiring criminal convicts to pay survivors for the loss of the deceased person’s potential earnings. “The Legislature,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote, “very clearly intended ‘that a victim of a crime who incurs any economic loss as a result of the commission of a crime shall receive restitution directly from any defendant convicted of that crime.’” In her dissent, Justice Joyce Kennard argued that survivors already have the right to apply to the state Restitution Fund for relief or file a civil wrongful-death suit against the criminal. “Had the Legislature intended to require our already overburdened criminal courts to resolve these complex and typically civil issues during sentencing hearings, or during restitution hearings held after sentencing,” she wrote, “I would expect to find some evidence of this intent in the language of [state statutes].” Monday’s ruling upholds Riverside County Superior Court Judge Randall White’s 2004 decision to order Charles Giordano to pay Patricia Armstrong nearly $168,000 in restitution for the death of her husband. Giordano was sentenced to four years in prison in 2003 after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter for slamming into Kenneth Armstrong’s motorcycle while driving drunk. Judge White originally ordered a restitution fine of only $400, but Patricia Armstrong sought more based on the loss of her husband’s annual salary of about $35,000 as a superintendent at a roofing business. Judge White multiplied Kenneth Armstrong’s average annual earnings by five years in calculating that Giordano owed about $168,000. While finding that the judge’s calculation was “imprecise,” the high court nonetheless found he hadn’t abused his discretion. “Generally, the calculation of the loss of support may be informed by such factors as the earning history of the deceased spouse, the age of the survivor and decedent, and the degree to which the decedent’s income provided support to the survivor’s household,” Moreno wrote. “These guideposts are not provided as an exhaustive list. Naturally the court’s discretion will be guided by the particular factors at play in each individual claim.” The Supreme Court rejected Giordano’s argument that the state Legislature never intended direct restitution orders to include awards for loss of support. “Given the constitutional and legislative intent to provide restitution for all crime victim losses, and the expressly non-exclusive list of categories of loss included in the direct restitution statute,” Moreno wrote, “we decline to read into that statute an implied limitation on restitution to surviving spouses based on a failure to enumerate that type of loss explicitly.” Grass Valley lawyer Diane Nichols, who represented Giordano, didn’t return a call seeking comment. Her opponent, San Diego-based Deputy Attorney General James Dutton, was out of the office and not available for comment. The ruling is People v. Giordano, 07 C.D.O.S. 13350.

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