Articles Posted in Criminal

A turkey? A person who has had a bit too much to drink? A spinning top?

Well, it might be all those things, but in California law, a “wobbler” refers to an offense that may be charged and punished as a felony or a misdemeanor. There are literally hundreds of wobbler offenses on the California law books. Although the Penal (criminal) Code lists the most wobblers, these offenses are also found in other codes, such as the Business and Professions Code, the Health and Safety Code, the Professions Code, the Vehicle Code, the Commercial Code, and the Family Law Code. A wobbler provides for punishment by incarceration in state prison (a felony) or in county jail (a misdemeanor).

For example, a charge of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm under Penal Code section 245 is punishable by either two, three, or four years imprisonment in state prison or incarceration in county jail for six months to one year. It’s important to keep in mind that even though the punishment calls for incarceration, that does not mean that if the defendant is convicted he or she will go to jail or prison. Even if convicted, and depending on the circumstances of the crime, the court will often “stay” or “suspend imposition” of a sentence and grant the defendant probation or some other alternative sentence.

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.

A defendant was charged with three separate armed robberies. The three victims all identified the defendant in a “six-pack” photographic lineup. In closing arguments at the jury trial, the defense attorney questioned the correctness of the identifications. The prosecution rebutted, stating that there were three victims who identified the defendant separately at different times. Referencing what the prosecutor called a “fancy expression” known as Occam’s Razor, the prosecutor argued that the reasonable doubt standard requires that the obvious answer is the best answer.

Occam’s Razor is a term that that refers to a problem-solving principle. Simply put, the principle states that when faced with competing hypotheses, the simpler one is the best one. The more assumptions that must be made to explain a hypothesis, the less likely that hypothesis is the correct one.

In the case of the armed robber, the defense argued that the victims misidentified the defendant in the photographic lineups. But implicit in the prosecutor’s statement was that it would require more assumptions to accept that conclusion than it would to conclude that each of the victims, by separately identifying the same person (the defendant) in the photographic lineup, correctly identified the defendant.

This is a true crime story with a twist:

Ascension Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend were transporting drugs in their vehicle. They stopped at a traffic light and when the light turned green, the car in front of them began to move through the light then stalled. Mr. Alverez-Tejeda stopped in enough time to avoid rear-ending the stalled car but the truck behind him did not. The truck tapped the bumper of Mr. Alverez-Tejeda’s vehicle. Two police officers responded, and the truck driver ended up getting arrested for driving drunk. Since there was no damage to Mr. Alverez-Tejeda’s vehicle, he asked the responding officers if he could leave. He was told that the officers needed a statement from him and he was directed to move to a nearby parking lot.

Mr. Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend were then told by the officers to give their statements inside the police cruiser. While they sat in the police car, Mr. Alverez-Tejeda’s vehicle was stolen. The police took off after the thief but returned to tell Mr. Alverez-Tejeda that the thief got away. What a stroke of bad luck for these would-be drug transporters. But it got worse: When the police recovered the stolen car, they obtained a search warrant and the drugs were found in the vehicle. Mr. Alverez-Tejeda was arrested and charged with transporting cocaine and methamphetamine.

Last month at a U.S. District Court in Maryland, a judge stepped down from his bench to shake the hands of two defendants and tell them he was sorry. The two defendants had, at different times, pleaded guilty to drug charges years ago in that same judge’s court. The convictions had just been vacated by the judge. One of the men, Umar Burley, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and heroin possession. He had spent seven years of his 15-year sentence when he was released. The other man pleaded guilty to drug charges and had served four years when he was released. So why did the judge shake these men’s’ hands and apologize? Because they were both innocent.

Last spring, Baltimore prosecutors charged at least eight officers, who were members of a special police task force, with gross misconduct, including planting drugs on innocent people. These officers were as crooked as it gets. Suspiciously, the Baltimore detective who was investigating this rouge police squad was fatally shot a day before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury.

The two recently released men are expected to be only the first of many who will be released. The district judge stated this is not over yet. Baltimore prosecutors estimate that there are at least 2,000 cases that involve arrests by this crooked task force.

While California prepares to license its first recreational cannabis shops next month, there are hundreds of thousands who have a marijuana-related criminal conviction for conduct that is now legal or less severe under the new laws. Some of these individuals are still incarcerated and some are on probation, but the majority have served their sentence but have a criminal record reflecting the conviction, which often places barriers to employment, professional licensing, firearm purchases, and even traveling to Canada.

Along with the legalization of recreation marijuana, Proposition 64 also included provisions for the reduction of criminal penalties for former marijuana convictions and for resentencing or dismissal of certain prior convictions for the sale of marijuana. Furthermore, certain convictions for conduct that is now legal under Prop 64 (generally, the personal use or possession of recreational marijuana for personal use) can now be dismissed and the record sealed. These remedies are not automatically granted. An individual seeking relief under these new provisions must petition the court for the relief and the court.

For persons who are currently facing sentencing on a marijuana charge or who are serving a sentence, whether in jail or prison, or on probation, the process requires the filing of a petition with the court which can be denied by the court under certain conditions. Eligibility for this petition is not available for all marijuana-related offenses and the petition requirements can be confusing, especially if the matter requires resentencing or custody credits. But the petition is well-worth filing. If successful, it can mean release from jail, prison, or probation and/or a significant reduction in a person’s sentence. It is advisable that an individual seeking relief under these circumstances consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.

There are kangaroo courts….and then there are donkey jails. While kangaroo courts don’t actually have kangaroos sitting in court, donkey jails do indeed have donkeys cooling their hoofs in jail, at least in one town in India. In the Northern Indian town of Orai, eight donkeys found a tasty meal that just happened to be expensive saplings outside of the local jail complex. When the donkeys were caught red-hoofed chowing down on the pricey plants, the local police constable took it into his own hands. The furry criminals were arrested and herded off to jail. Hard to believe, but apparently this is true; even the New York Times reported the story. And there is some “cute animal” video footage of the arrest; it’s a nice break from cat videos.

The donkeys’ owner was in a frantic search for his animals. When he found out they were in the big house, he begged the police to set them free. But apparently the poor owner could not afford the bail. So, he sought justice through his local politician. Reportedly the bail was paid by the politician and the donkeys were released. The donkeys spent a total of four days in jail, there is no report as to whether they complained about the jailhouse food.

Now lest you think this Indian town is just a bit foolish, the jail superintendent explained that there is not really a donkey jail in Orai and donkeys can’t really be arrested. The donkeys were taken into “custody” to teach their owner a lesson. The owner had been warned repeatedly about his animals roaming in the town but had done nothing about it. Still, you have to admit, this story makes great copy and is good for a chuckle.

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.

A little over 20 years ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was passed by an act of Congress. The act was precipitated in part by the increased attention to violent crime including street gang violence and mass shootings. The bill was introduced by the federal government as part of the “get tough on crime” climate of that era. It was sweeping legislation that continues to be in force today. Among the many legislative staffers who worked on the bill was GOP staffer Kevin Ring. Twenty years later, Mr. Ring was convicted by the federal government on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with an illegal lobbying scheme. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison and served his time in a minimum-security prison until his release in 2015.

Now the former lobbyist, lawyer, and legislative aide who fought for and believed in tougher criminal laws has had a change of heart. Looking back, Mr. Ring says that too many bills are written by 20-year-olds with no experience but a lot of opinions. That’s a frightening statement but it is true. The “Hill” is staffed by mostly young people, Mr. Ring himself was in his mid-20’s when he helped push through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Now with more experience and some prison time under his belt, he along with two other former GOP operatives who ended up in federal prison are working on prison reform. They have some strong allies in Mark Zuckerberg and the Koch brothers, who are helping to fund their initiatives.

Mr. Ring is president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), which advocates for humane and individualized sentencing. The focus of FAMM is the mandatory minimum sentencing, which allows little to no discretion in sentencing offenders for certain crimes. More than one-fifth of federal offenders sentenced last year were sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentence. Mr. Ring believes that mandatory minimums are not only inherently unfair but inflate the sentences across all offenses, even those not subject to mandatory minimum guidelines.

When a person is arrested in California for a felony, and some misdemeanors, he or she will be detained—most often at the county jail—until an arraignment before a judge. At the arraignment, the judge will set bail, or in some cases release the defendant on their own recognizance. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the bail amount can run into the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of dollars. If the defendant has the resources to pay the bail, which will usually be 10% of the bail amount paid to a bail bondsman. Current law mandates the bail system and its due for reform.

Consider that the way it is set up now: those who have limited resources often find themselves unable to post bail. Even though they are still innocent of the crime for which they are charged, they will remain incarcerated because they don’t have the funds to pay a bail bondsman. It is not as uncommon as you might think to see a person’s freedom taken away for months, even years, only to be acquitted of the crime for which they were accused. On the other hand, a person with enough resources who is charged with a crime, even one that is very serious (even a person charged with murder may be entitled to bail), will be able to secure his or her release from jail. This is an inherently unfair system.

In 2016, the Chief Justice of California established a Pretrial Detention Reform Workgroup to analyze pretrial detention in California and recommend policy reform. The panel, which consisted of Superior Court Judges from a variety of California counties just published its findings and recommendations. They came up with ten recommendations for pretrial reform: