Articles Posted in Constitutional Rights

While every defendant has a constitutional right to a jury of his or her peers, criminal charges rarely go to trial. In fact, around 97% of criminal cases are resolved by a plea bargain. A plea bargain is when the defendant pleads guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges. Often the process involves the prosecutor agreeing to dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a plea to the remaining charges. Sometimes, the plea will include an offer of a low-end sentence or probation in exchange for the plea. These are called conditional pleas. An open or unconditional plea is one where the defendant pleads guilty with no promises made to him or her for the plea.

The judge has very little to do with the conditional plea process and, in fact, in California, the judge is not allowed to engage in any plea bargaining. However, at the time the plea is entered by the defendant in court, the judge can reject the plea agreement but the judge cannot change the terms of the agreement. Open pleas can be made to the court and the judge can, in that instance, indicate the sentence he or she will levy against the defendant. If that sentence is not imposed, the defendant can withdraw the plea.

Following the acceptance by the judge of the defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest, whether after a plea bargain with the prosecutor or an open plea, the court will enter judgment, that is, the judge will enter the conviction pursuant to the plea.

When a person is charged with a crime, the prosecution is bound by law to provide all the evidence supporting the charge or charges, including evidence that might exonerate the defendant. Evidence that is favorable to the defendant is called “exculpatory evidence” and back in 1963, the United States Supreme Court held that the prosecution must give all this exculpatory evidence to the defense. This case, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, was the seminal case on exculpatory evidence. These days, attorneys refer to Brady evidence when they are talking about exculpatory evidence.

Unfortunately, the prosecution sometimes plays fast and loose with exculpatory evidence. And if the defense doesn’t know the evidence exists, it may be hidden by the prosecution and not available in the discovery, leaving the defendant at a disadvantage. This doesn’t happen in every case, most prosecutors run an honest practice, but it happens. A few years ago, the Orange County District Attorney’s office was scandalized by allegations that it withheld material evidence from the defense and the court in a high-profile murder case. That led to a new law in California that provides for criminal punishment of a prosecutor who withholds evidence.

Sometimes, the discovery that a prosecutor has withheld exculpatory evidence does not become known until years after the trial. For example, just this year, disciplinary charges were filed by the State Bar of California against a former L.A. City Attorney who was accused of withholding potential exculpatory evidence in a murder case that took place 30 years ago. The case was a death penalty case and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death.

We cannot walk down our streets, drive our cars, or talk on our cell phones without these activities being caught by ubiquitous law enforcement surveillance. Use a cell phone and your location can be easily discovered. Similarly, the license plates of cars everywhere are being continuously scanned and registered in a database. Facial recognition cameras are scanning pedestrians and drivers at every turn. Next time you are walking in town, look up on the light poles and other high public structures. Smile, you’re on candid camera.

This surveillance undoubtedly helps the cops catch the bad guys. I have seen how these techniques have enabled the police to discover the perpetrator of crime and locate him or her quickly. The techniques also often provide the prosecution with solid evidence. The defendant who says, “I wasn’t there” as defendants do, will often find out that the prosecution has irrefutable evidence that the defendant was there. Maybe the defendant’s cell phone signal was running off a cell tower near the location of the crime, maybe the defendant’s license plate was scanned on the street where the crime occurred, maybe the prosecution even has a picture of the defendant from a nearby surveillance camera, and soon, a law enforcement drone or small plane may capture evidence against the defendant. Defendants are often unaware that they have been surreptitiously surveilled – as indeed we all are!

This comes with a price. Every innocent citizen is caught in this web of surveillance implicating our Fourth Amendment Right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Many people are willing to be constantly surveilled in trade off for greater crime prevention. But, the wisdom of our Founding Fathers should not be ignored.

Sometimes a person arrested for a crime will swear he or she was nowhere near the location when the criminal incident took place., but the prosecution will allege otherwise…with evidence to prove it. That evidence: tracking of the defendant’s cell phone. Even if the defendant wasn’t using his or her cellphone at the time, the cellphone sends data to cell towers, or more commonly these days, the GPS system embedded on most cellphones does the work. All the police need is the defendant’s cellphone (assuming he or she was carrying it at the time of the alleged crime) to find the defendant’s location at the time. But what if the cellphone, say, disappeared? The authorities can still get the information from the cellphone service provider.

In California, the state authorities need a warrant (or the cellphone owner’s consent) to search any cell phone data, but that isn’t true in all states and it isn’t the case for federal crimes. So even if an individual is suspected of a crime in California, but it is a federal crime being investigated by federal authorities, those authorities do not need a warrant to search historical data held by the suspect’s cellphone service provider.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every person in this country is secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. How “unreasonable” is defined is the subject of many a treatise but for purposes here and ignoring the enumerated exceptions for the moment, if there is no warrant, the search and seizure is considered by law to be “unreasonable.” How would the warrantless search of historical cellphone data as recorded by the cellphone service provider fit into the cellphone owner’s Fourth Amendment guarantee?


Here’s an interesting case that caught my eye: Narcotics officers in Colorado Springs observed a driver in his parked vehicle conducting what appeared to be a narcotics transaction. The officers made contact with the driver and after a brief struggle, they discovered a brown satchel containing cash and Ziploc bags near the vehicle. They then searched the vehicle and found controlled substances, firearms, and ammunition. The first question any good defense attorney would ask is, “What reasonable suspicion did the officers have for contacting and detaining the driver in the first place?” Why? Because the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires either a search warrant or a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver has violated the law before a vehicle can be searched. The courts have fashioned many exceptions to this requirement but if an arrest is the result of a search without a warrant and without probable cause or any of the enumerated exceptions, the entire arrest can be challenged by a motion to suppress.

The Colorado case is particularly interesting because of the facts: The police got a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle, the vehicle was sold, and the new vehicle owner was the guy that ended up getting arrested. The police continued to track the vehicle even though there was evidence that they knew the vehicle had been sold. The officers testified that they surveilled the vehicle to see if the previous owner was still driving the car. It was during that surveillance that the new owner of the car was observed parking the car and was contacted by the officers, which ended up in the search of the vehicle and the driver’s arrest.

Police use-of-force has been big news in this country for several years now. A large segment of the public believes that the police have used fatal force without just cause. They cite many high-profile cases: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so on. These police killings have triggered a storm of protests across the country, including in California. In some of these cases, the officer or officers involved faced possible charges of manslaughter or even murder. In virtually all of these cases, the decision as to whether to prosecute these officers is left to a secret grand jury proceedings. With few exceptions, the grand juries have found that an indictment of the officer is not supported by the evidence. The public often perceives the grand jury as biased in favor of the cops and there has been a high level of distrust in the grand jury system. It doesn’t help that the proceedings are held in secret.

California became the first state in the country to address the public’s distrust of the grand jury system as employed in officer-involved lethal force cases. In 2015, Governor Brown signed into law a bill, SB 227, prohibiting the use of grand juries in California when an officer has used lethal force under circumstances that are possibly criminal. Rather, if a cop was to be charged, the district attorney would have to directly file the criminal complaint and the case would proceed through an open preliminary hearing. Thereafter, charges by what is called an information would be filed by the district attorney if the evidence at the preliminary hearing showed a reasonable possibility that the officer’s use of lethal force was a criminal act. Prior to enactment of SB 227, California prosecutors had the option of going to the grand jury or directly filing charges by a criminal complaint.

Not surprisingly prosecutors opposed SB 277. They argued that the grand jury system, by the fact that it is held in secret, facilitates the discovery of the truth. The grand jury proceedings, they argued, permits them to compel witnesses to testify and “offer a fuller seeking of the truth for all sides. . ..” (SB 227 Arguments in Opposition.) Prosecutors also objected because they argued that if they could not use the grand jury as an investigation tool in police lethal force cases, it hampered their ability to properly investigate the incident.

Dystopian films and literature are usually thought of as science fiction, but while this entertainment might be classified as fiction, it often portends a future that may already be here. That is especially true when it comes to crime fighting. In my previous post, I discussed a few of the tools now at law enforcement’s disposal that would have been considered science fiction only a generation ago. Are we heading towards a world with oppressive societal controls and a loss of civil rights as the dystopian novels and films depict? Many civil rights advocates fear just that.

One of the emerging crime fighting techniques is facial recognition and many fear that this technique not only violates the rights of innocent people. There is also legitimate concern about facial recognition errors identifying innocent people. No one really knows how widespread the use of this law enforcement technique is because there are very few controls or reporting requirements and almost zero transparency. Police can scan images from virtually any photograph, including DMV photos, social media, and even video webcams set up to scan the public. Facial recognition software can then be used to scan through these digitized images to look for a match in the search for a suspect. What’s wrong with that, you might ask?

Well, to begin, it is essentially a virtual lineup. Maybe you are in that lineup and you don’t even know it – actually you may have already been in one of these lineups or soon will be. Remember, law enforcement is able to scan through thousands of images at the push of a computer button.

In earlier blog posts, I discussed the CalGang Database, a database collected and used by law enforcement throughout California. I discussed how this database is kept in secret and many who are included in the database are unaware of their inclusion and worse yet, many who are listed in the database are listed in error.

In a victory for the civil liberties and social justice organizations that pushed for it, a new law was just signed by the governor, to go into effect on January 1, 2018, that is designed to end the secrecy of this database and give those on the database an opportunity to contest inclusion of their name on the database. This is an important piece of legislation because inclusion on this database can have serious consequences and affects the due process rights of those who have been placed on a gang database.

As I previously discussed in earlier blog posts, a person might be put in a gang database for simply being in detained by the police in a certain neighborhood or even put on the database in error. For those later arrested for a crime, being in the database will, in many cases, result in the prosecution alleging gang enhancements, which necessarily carry greater punishments than the underlying crime itself. For undocumented immigrants, being included on a gang database can be cause for their deportation without hearing, even if they are mis-classified on the database.

In 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the trial of Scott Dekraai, who was accused and since convicted of the worst mass murder in Orange County. Judge Goethals booted the District Attorney’s Office from the case after an investigation initiated by the defendant’s lawyer revealed that law enforcement investigating the case withheld material evidence from the court. Law enforcement officers are agents for the District Attorney and as such, the judge found that the District Attorney’s Office was responsible for the illegal withholding of evidence in the trial. Although Judge Goethals found that the district attorneys on the case had committed serious misconduct, but concluded that their actions were not intentional.

Some legal observers would beg to differ with the judge’s ruling. Many defense attorneys have long suspected, or even known, that the District Attorney’s Office regularly withholds exculpatory evidence at trial. Sometimes a trial seems more like a competition, with the District Attorney out to win at all costs, than the right guaranteed by our Constitution for a fair and impartial presentation of facts to be heard and decided by a trial of peers. This is not only a violation of the defendant’s due process rights but it perverts the criminal justice system. The withholding or distortion of evidence denies a defendant a fair trial and, worse—it can (and has) result in the conviction of an innocent person.

Jumpstarted by the events in Judge Goethals courtroom, Assembly Bill 1909, was signed into law by Governor Brown last month. This law, which will be added by a subdivision to Penal Code section 141, punishes prosecutors who are found to abuse their power by “intentionally and in bad faith” tampering or withholding evidence in a criminal trial. The new law requires that the prosecutor knew the evidence was “relevant and material to the outcome of the case” and acted with “specific intent.” In the Orange County case, Judge Goethals found that the district attorneys did not act intentionally. So even though this new law was prompted by the actions in that trial, the district attorneys involved would not be prosecuted under this new law.

Zulmai Nazarzai was never convicted of a crime; he was never even charged with a crime. Yet he has been sitting in solitary confinement in the Orange County jail for six years now. That is a long time to spend in solitary confinement.

In 2010, the California attorney general filed a civil lawsuit against Mr. Nazarzai accusing him of running a boiler-room telemarketing scam that bilked elderly people to the tune of $2 million. This was a civil lawsuit; the attorney general did not charge Mr. Nazarzai with any criminal acts. The attorney general won the civil suit and Mr. Nazarzai was ordered to pay a hefty sum of $4 million in penalties and restitution. It was known to the attorney general that Mr. Nazarzai had withdrawn $360,540 from his business bank account. The judge who made the restitution order, ordered Mr. Nazarzai to turn over those funds.

Mr. Nazarzai told the judge he did not have the money. He actually told the judge some absurd story about how the money was lost. The judge called his story incredulous and held Mr. Nazarzai in contempt of court for willful disobedience of the court’s order. (Code of Civil Procedure §1209 (a)(5))