Can a sexually violent predator in state custody run for office in California?

In the weeks leading up to the November election, Coalinga Mayor Nathan Vosburg was scrambling to get people to vote. But his sense of urgency wasn’t just in the name of voter turnout.

He worried that a sexually violent predator living at Coalinga State Hospital was going to be elected to City Council.

He had done the math: Less than 1,000 registered voters live in District 5, where the hospital is located. More than 300 of the hospital’s patients – civil detainees considered among the state’s worst rapists and child molesters — are registered to vote.

“With the abnormally high turnout at the CSH versus the normal turnout for our residents living outside of the CSH, I think this poses an issue that should be solved…” Vosburg said. “It could be really tough if these votes are allowed to be counted.”

Patients at Coalinga had flexed their voting rights before. Last year, they took credit for voting down a city tax measure, which failed by just 37 votes.

Rumors circulated in October that hospital patients planned to support a write-in candidate on the City Council ballot: one of their own.

Ultimately, turnout for the race was nearly 60 percent, with 299 people voting for the successful incumbent, Ron Ramsey. His competitor, Luis Henry Gonzales, received 220 votes. Only nine voters wrote in candidates.

But what if the 342 registered voters at Coalinga State Hospital had written in a fellow patient as a candidate? What if a patient gets on the ballot next election?

What if?

When asked about that possibility, Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth was brief: Candidates running for office must be a registered voter in the trustee area they want to represent.

There aren’t many disqualifiers. A 2017 state law, for instance, allows felons imprisoned in county jails to vote while still behind bars or under post-release monitoring.

The near 1,300 patients at Coalinga State Hospital have already served their prison sentences. They are meant to undergo therapy in hopes that a judge rules they are OK to re-enter society, after failing to pass psychiatric tests post-prison. They aren’t in the penal system – they’re in the Department of State Hospitals system.

Michael Saint Martin was the Coalinga patient rumored to run in November’s election. He said he never had intentions of running, but had gained support from fellow patients after a voter’s guide was circulated at the hospital.

Saint Martin, who has been at the hospital since 2006 after serving 10 years in prison for child molestation charges, said it wouldn’t be right to run for local office, but it’s possible.

“I don’t really know the community. I would create more animosity with the community than I already have by being here, and that’s not my intention,” Saint Martin said from inside the hospital. “Together, we certainly could do it if we pushed. We would have more people than this district would have, if we got more people registered to vote. But we don’t have an evil agenda. We don’t want to do something to negatively affect the community.”

Who can answer?

Orth referred other questions to City of Coalinga officials, saying they “would be able to state what their requirements are to run for city council.” But Vosburg has been looking for answers from Orth and state officials.

“I do not know the entire legality of whether or not someone could be elected or not...” he said. “Do we allow someone that’s sitting in there, that can’t use any of our services, represent our city? Does the majority of our population think that’s a good idea for someone who’s had allegations of raping children? I would say no.”

In response to Vosburg’s inquiries in an email Oct. 26, Orth assured him: “My office will follow California and Federal law as it is applicable to all situations.”

The Governor’s Office referred questions to the Secretary of State’s Office. A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office said only people who have been convicted of specific felonies, pertaining to crimes like bribery, embezzlement of public money or perjury, are forbidden from running for local or state office, pointing to state election code.

While Coalinga State Hospital has been open since 2005, the concerns of Vosburg and others intensified when the City Council elections switched this year from at-large to district-based voting. Under the new election system, the ratio of mental health patients to citizens living outside the hospital in District 5 is significant.

The city of Coalinga has fought this before. After hospital patients helped defeat the 2017 municipal tax, the city council filed a lawsuit against Fresno County, aiming to void those votes, alleging that the patients aren’t technically residents of the city and should be considered residents of the cities they lived in prior to being sent to the hospital.

A Fresno County Superior Court Judge denied that attempt by the city, ruling that people committed to a state hospital can register to vote in the county of the commitment.

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, introduced a bill this year siding with the city of Coalinga, proposing that the residence status of a sexually violent predator should be his last known address, not the hospital he resides in. But that bill failed in May.

Arambula declined to comment.

Practically speaking

So what happens if a civil detainee at the hospital gets elected to City Council, but isn’t allowed to leave the maximum security facility to attend meetings or other community events?

Vosburg said it’s uncharted waters, and worries about legal threats from voting rights advocates.

Earlier this year, the city passed increased residency requirements for council members. In order to hold a council seat, a candidate must provide proof of home ownership or rental property in their district; proof of motor vehicle registration and proof of a Coalinga utility bill.

In a statement, the Department of State Hospitals said patients are not allowed to leave facilities without a court order.

“The hospitals do transport patients to attend outside medical appointments, but that is only with a physician’s order,” a spokesman said.

The City Council has rules that would punish council members for not attending meetings, but Vosburg said he is unsure how those would hold up if challenged.

“All of those policies could be challenged and have the city in a lawsuit,” Vosburg said. “City laws do not override state and federal laws from what I understand.”

The DSH, which has four other mental health hospitals in Atascadero, Napa, Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County, said it has no records of patients running for elected office.

According to the DSH website, patients are guaranteed numerous rights under state and federal laws.

“Our patients are afforded the same Constitutional and Statutory rights guaranteed to all individuals, though some rights may be necessarily modified to ensure the safety and security of our patients and employees,” it says.

Mackenzie Mays is The Bee’s investigative reporter. Previously, she worked at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, her home state. In 2018, she won a McClatchy President’s Award, a George Gruner Award and was a national finalist for the Education Writers Association Awards.

How we reported this story

The reporting for this story started prior to the Nov. 6 election, when rumors swirled that a patient at Coalinga State Hospital was campaigning for city council. The reporter spoke with concerned citizens via Facebook, who had gotten a copy of a flier being circulated in the hospital. The reporter tracked the patient down, with the help of other Coalinga patients, and was able to interview him by phone. Patients at Coalinga State Hospital often share a land line phone among four men per unit and are not allowed access to the internet or cell phones.

The reporter found out that the patient had no intention of running for office, but clear questions remained. When the reporter reached out to the mayor to answer those questions, he had questions himself. He forwarded emails to the reporter showing that he had posed questions to county and state officials about the possibility of a patient running for office, but the answers from those officials were vague.

The reporter identified election code that forbids certain felons from running for office, but no language about sexually violent predators’ right to run is laid out in legislation. While state law tackles whether people with felonies can vote (in many instances, they can) it does not clarify if they can run for office.

County and state agencies referred questions to other agencies. On Oct. 31, a spokesman for the California Fair Political Practices Commission said the subject “is not in our purview or jurisdiction.” The reporter reached out to the Secretary of State’s Office on Oct. 31, Nov. 5 and Nov. 12 and received a reply via email, pointing to election code on Nov. 21. The Governor’s Office referred questions to the Secretary of State’s Office. Several city and state officials and voting rights organizations did not return requests for comment.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays