There are two ways a person can be charged with a crime in California. One is by grand jury indictment; the other far more common method is by a criminal complaint filed by the prosecutor, who represents the People of the State of California. (The People of the State of California as plaintiff, the offender as defendant.) When an individual is charged by complaint, there is often a long list of charges, some seemingly redundant. My clients are often confused as to how the prosecution can come up with a long list of different crimes for the same act.

For example, say John Doe is accused of punching and kicking his wife. She falls to the ground and on all fours she crawls toward the front door to escape her husband’s abuse. As she attempts to open the front door, Mr. Doe hits her on the head with a nearby large glass vase, which shatters causing several lacerations on Mrs. Doe’s scalp. He then drags her away from the front door. After dragging her back inside, he then opens the front door and tells her to get out.

In this scenario, Mr. Doe would likely see several charges filed against him in addition to the domestic abuse offense. If Mrs. Doe’s injuries were substantial enough and the vase he hit her on the head was heavy, he could even face an attempted murdercharge. But at the very least, the Orange County district attorney would charge Mr. Doe with 1) corporal injury on a spouse, with a sentence enhancement of great bodily injury, 2) assault, again with a sentencing enhancement of great bodily injury, and 3) false imprisonment effected by violence.

One of the most common questions I hear from my clients is: “Will my arrest or conviction show up on an employment or other background check, such as for a rental application?”

There is no one database that potential employers or landlords can access that provides all the criminal information about an applicant. Rather, what normally happens when a criminal background check is initiated, is that the applicant’s personal data (including past addresses) will be given to a third-party company that checks the applicant’s background for a fee. The background check can vary considerably between these companies—some offer low cost cursory background checks; some of the more expensive ones will complete a due diligence background check that may include all states the applicant has lived in and federal records. The information in these reports vary in their accuracy.

So, where does the background information come from? Depending on how thorough the background check is, the information is gathered through county court records (usually by a paid subscription service that provides this data to the background check company) and perhaps federal criminal court records.  For sensitive employment positions, such as banking or financial services, the criminal background check will be very thorough.

While much press has been given to “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states, did you know that California is also a stand your ground state? A little over half the states have formally legislated stand your ground laws in one form or another. California, along with a few other states, have stand your ground laws established through case law precedent, rather than legislation. Altogether, 34 states, including California, allow a person to stand his/her ground in self-defense, no matter the setting. The remaining states allow stand your ground defense only if he or she is in his vehicle and/or home, while Vermont and Washington D.C. require a person to flee from a criminal assault of any kind and even if that is within their own home.

Stand your ground laws among states vary, but essential to all is the right of person to use force to defend him-or herself without first trying to flee. Hence the sobriquet “Stand Your Ground.”

Stacy was sitting in her kitchen feeding her toddler when suddenly her ex-husband, who was under court orders to stay awayfrom Stacy, their child, and Stacy’s home, comes banging through the front door. Wild-eyed and apparently on drugs, he started waiving a pistol at Stacy, telling her that he is going to kill her and the child. Stacy had feared this day and she kept a gun in the kitchen drawer. She was able to grab the gun and shot her ex-husband, fatally wounding him. It was later discovered that her ex-husband’s pistol was not loaded.


SHOULD THE U.S. RECONSIDER ITS INCARCERATION POLICIES?

FACT: The United States comprises 4.27 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.  The rates of incarceration are higher in the United States than any other county, and folks, that includes Russia and China. Only North Korea, where statistics are hard to come by (but it is estimated by human rights organizations to be 600 to 800 prisoners per 100,000 in total country population) might the incarceration rate reach the rates in the U.S.  For some incarceration rate comparisons consider that the worldwide average is 145 persons locked up per 100,000, Russia has 615 inmates per 100,000, China, 118, and the U.S.? A whopping 737 per 100,000. Why?

Is it that the United States has so many more criminals than other countries? No. Study after study has shown the United States to have a lower crime rate than many countries, ranking number 45 out of 118 on the crime index by country for 2019.

When our second president was a young lawyer and before the United States was an independent nation, John Adams was called upon to defend a very unpopular cause. One of the founding principles on which our country was built was the rule of law over the rule of men. John Adams valued this principle over his own reputation and safety.

In March of 1770, while British soldiers still occupied the colonies, five Bostonians were fatally shot by British soldiers. This went down in history as the “Boston massacre”. The Brits were despised by most colonial residents and the clamor for independence was reaching a fever pitch. A crowd, or as some describe the events, a mob, confronted a British contingent of soldiers. Since there were no recording devices back then we must rely on varying accounts of the confrontation. What is known is that the colonists were threatening the soldiers; some may have physically attacked the soldiers and there were shots fired by civilians from the customs house where the confrontation occurred. The soldiers, apparently without orders from their captain, responded with their guns, wounding several people and killing five.

John Adams successfully defended the captain and the soldiers, who were all charged with murder. Only two of the soldiers were convicted of manslaughter and the rest were all acquitted. Despite the hostility towards the Brits and a propaganda war launched by patriots to affect public opinion about the events, Mr. Adams convinced the jury that the acts were in self-defense.

THE END OF BAIL – ARE RISK-ASSESSMENT TOOLS BIASED?

With the coming end to money bail, California courts will be mandated to rely on risk assessment conducted by Pretrial Assessment Services (PAS). Risk assessment, as mandated by the new law, will categorize those arrested for a crime as high, medium, or low risk in terms of the likelihood that the alleged offender will return to appear in court and the risk the alleged offender poses to the public. Each alleged offender will receive a “risk score” and depending upon that score, the defendant may be released on his or her own recognizance or may be held in jail.  Those charged with a misdemeanor (with certain exceptions) will not be subject to the assessment and will be released on their own recognizance.

But this blog post is not about the new law, but about “risk assessment.” How will PAS make the risk assessment? The new law requires PAS to rely on a “validated risk assessment tool” approved by the court from a list of such tools that are maintained by the Judicial Council. Orange County, as will each county in California, chose what tool to use from those approved by the Council. The tools must be scientifically validated for their accuracy and reliability in assessing the alleged offender’s risk. These tools are algorithm-basedand calculate risk based on the alleged offender’s criminal history and other personal factors plus general criminal justice data. The data input, depending on the tool, may include more than 100 factors, which are weighted according mathematical formulas to assess an alleged offender’s risk. This use of artificial intelligence to determine who gets out of jail and who doesn’t is not without controversy and opposition. Indeed, over 100 civil rights-related organizations opposepretrial risk assessment, including the ACLU and NAACP.

A Massachusetts woman’s conviction for involuntary manslaughterwas upheld by that state’s high court after a lower court found her guilty of the charge after she encouraged her boyfriend by text messages to follow through on his suicide. The Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter law is very similar to the law in California. Both states define involuntary manslaughter as act not intended to cause the death of another person but was committed in such a careless way that a death of another occurred. In Massachusetts, the act is defined as “wanton and reckless conduct,” while in California it is defined as “without due caution.”

Some typical examples of involuntary manslaughterinclude the Dr. Conrad Murry/Michael Jackson case where the doctor prescribed what ultimately was a lethal dose of a drug. Another example might be where a worker dies due to a dangerous condition in the workplace and the owner was aware of that condition.

But the Massachusetts case is not the typical manslaughter case. In that case, the young woman’s boyfriend parked his truck in a parking lot and then diverted carbon monoxide from the truck into the cab where he was sitting. He started to have second thoughts and texted his girlfriend. Instead of talking him out of it, she egged him on, telling him to get back in the truck and finish the job. Her text messages included statements such as “the time is right” and “your family will understand and accept it.” Apparently, her boyfriend had been struggling with depression, which made him a “vulnerable person” according the Massachusetts court. The high court found that the “coercive quality” of the young woman’s text messages overwhelmed the compromised willpower of the depressed boyfriend and had it not been for her encouragement, he would not have stepped back into his truck and killed himself.

In 2017, California instituted a new lawthat prohibits law enforcement from seizing any asset valued over $40,000 in what is known as civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is nothing more than official theft by the state under the color of law. Basically, it allows law enforcement to seize property suspected of being used or in any way connected to suspected criminal activity. This may be a house, a car, jewelry, cash or any asset.

Civil asset forfeiture has, for example, been used to seize the home of a grandmother from which her grandson was allegedly selling drugs without her knowledge. Prior to the change in law in California (and still applicable for assets under $40,000), and in many other states, the owners of the property had to prove innocence—even when there are no charges yet filed and certainly before there is any conviction. In fact, it is estimated that in over 80 percent of all civil asset forfeiture cases in the United States the owners of the property were never even charged with the alleged crime. Yet law enforcement can and does keep the property. The hurdles owners are required to pass to challenge the forfeiture are legally complex and expensive.

As hard as it is to believe, civil asset forfeiture has been an important law enforcement “tool” – or better termed, a legal way to fund law enforcement coffers, for that is what happens to the assets seized – the “proceeds” go directly to the seizing agency. Unamerican? Perverse? Legal theft? Yes, and more. And the United States Supreme Court agrees!

The top health story of 2018 according to WebMD was the opioid addiction crisis. This crisis is not only a health crisis but a legal crisis too. Opioid addiction creates a huge black market for purveyors of all variety of opioids, including heroin. The addiction also causes many addicts to commit crimes so that they are able to fund their habit. But most tragic of all is the number of people who are dying from opioid overdoses.  In 2017, the most recent year for which the statistics are available, 47,600 people died in the U.S. from an opioid overdose. Tragically, over half of those deaths were among people 25-44 years of age. Opioid deaths surpass the number of people who died in a fatal car accident in 2017 by almost 10,000. To put this in perspective, every 11 minutes, someone dies of an opioid overdose.

Why is our health and legal system doing such a poor job of addressing this crisis? Perhaps we are putting too much blame on the addict. To the credit of justice reform efforts across the country, including some in Orange County, laws are being written that seek to address the addiction rather than criminalize it. But perhaps we need to turn our thinking 180 degrees. No one plans on getting hooked on opioids. Sometimes it is chronic physical pain that brings a person to the dark path of addiction, often leading to addiction to street drugs such as heroin when the prescriptions are no longer available.  This is often the story we hear.

Yet, there is another pain that leads people to addiction—emotional/psychological pain. In our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nation, we often consider those who become addicted because they are in emotional pain to be weak and consider the addiction to be their own fault. How helpful is that? Not very. The truth is many people turn to these drugs in response to very painful life experiences, whether it be the lingering effects of PTSD, childhood trauma, or any number of experiences that affect the person so profoundly that they cannot shake the pain of it. Not everyone will turn to drugs to ease painful experiences, but some people are simply more susceptible, whether that is due to personality factors, lack of resources, or even a lack of imagination.

The Felony Murder Rule is a rule that attributes liability to an accomplice for a murder even if the accomplice was not the actual killer. In California, an accomplice (also referred to as an aider and abettor) to a crime can be charged, convicted, and sentenced for first- or second- degree murder just by the simple fact that he or she participated in a crime where a murder occurred. In fact, for some serious crimes such as burglary, robbery, or rape, an accomplice to the crime could even be sentenced to death even though he or she did not commit the actual killing.

For example, Jack and Jill scheme to steal a pail of very high value liquid from a woman who lives up on a hill. Jack is armed; he is the one who will take the pail by force or fear (robbery). Jill’s role is to coax the woman out of her house so the robbery can be accomplished. Jack and Jill do not plan to murder anyone; they only want the pail and its contents. Jill lures the woman outside where Jack is waiting. Jack springs from behind some bushes, points the gun at the woman, and demands the pail. As this is happening, Jill spots a neighbor with a shotgun who is witnessing this event. Jill warns Jack and in a sudden panic, he shoots and kills the neighbor. Jack and Jill then run down the hill without the pail of liquid. Much to their surprise, the cops are waiting for them at the bottom of the hill because the neighbor’s wife had called 911. They are both arrested and charged with attempted robbery and murder.

Jill never expected Jack to kill anyone; in fact, he had told her that the gun was not loaded. None of that matters for purposes of the felony murder rule. It is enough that Jill participated in a crime that had the inherent risk of death. It doesn’t matter if the death was intentional, negligent or even accidental.