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Articles Posted in Criminal

The California Department of Justice makes crime statistics available to the public that can be an interesting read for a legal nerd such as myself. Even if you aren’t a legal nerd, I think you might find the data noteworthy. In the “Crimes & Clearances” statistics, we can see the raw numbers of various crimes committed by state and by each individual county and even breakdowns by city and precinct.

Taking a look at Orange County only for the years 2010 through 2019, one crime stands out: rape.  While virtually every other category of crime, from homicide to robbery, to arson and other crimes went down or remained steady over the ten year period, rape has shown steady and notable increases (from the high 300’s to the low 400’s reported rape crimes in 2010-2013, suddenly jumping to 650 in 2014 and since then registering in the high 700’s to the low 900’s). This could reflect an increase in reported rapes, or it could reflect a real increase in rape.  The same pattern held true for the entire state.

While this news is distressing, most other crimes have held steady or declined slightly. On the other side of the rape statistics is arson. Arson crimes decreased substantially between 2010-2019. Like rape, there could be alternative explanations. For example, more robust wildfire seasons where fires are often started by individuals who are later charged with arson could account for the differences.

When police officers encounter an individual, whether as a result of a traffic stop, arrest for suspicion of a crime, even just a detention based on a suspicion, or other encounters, the officer may complete what is called a  field interview card on the individual. These cards are most often used by the officer when the individual is suspected of being a member of, or affiliated with, a criminal street gang.  If the police officer suspects gang affiliation or membership, the individual’s name, demographics, visible tattoos, suspected gang insignia or clothing, and so on is entered on the  field interview card, which eventually ends up in the statewide CalGang database.

There have been many documented abuses of this practice. Among the most egregious abuse of this practice is the entry of false information about the individual that results in the individual being added to the CalGang database. Having your name on this database is not inconsequential. When an individual’s name is entered into this database, that person’s name shows up at every subsequent law enforcement encounter as a suspected gang member. This can have consequences even on a minor traffic stop. Individuals on this database are more likely to be a suspected by the officer and are often suspected in criminal investigations.

Recently at least 24 Los Angeles Police Department officers have been identified by LAPD for suspicion of falsifying information on field interview cards. Six of those officers now face criminal charges, the others have been assigned to desk duty or put on leave. They may yet be charged. These officers allegedly filled out field information cards identifying individuals as admitting gang membership when in fact those individuals made no such admission, and some outright denied it. The falsifications were discovered when the police bodycams were viewed relative to these particular contacts and field identification cards. An officer’s false report about an individual is a violation of that person’s due process rights and as I previously blogged about, it can haunt a person for years as a suspected gang member, when in fact there was no evidence to support the suspicion.

In California, there are statutory procedures that offer criminal record relief, most commonly through one of the following:

  • Petition for Dismissal (Expungement): A person who was previously convicted of an qualifying misdemeanor or felony, and who has successfully completed their sentence, is usually eligible to petition the court to dismiss the conviction.
  • Certificate of Detention: When a person is arrested but where charges were never filed as a result of that arrest, the arrestee may petition the arresting agency for a certificate of detention, which in effect, erases the entire arrest record and turns it into a investigatory detention.

California law enforcement agencies utilize automated license plate readers (ALPR) that collect and store images of license plates as vehicles pass within an ALPR’s view. ALPRs are cameras that are located throughout a law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction atop fixed objects, such as light poles, and on moving objects, such as patrol cars. As the cameras capture the images of every vehicle that passes within its range, the images are converted into data that then goes into a searchable database. ALPR assists law enforcement in locating a vehicle involved in a crime, stolen vehicles, child kidnappings and other investigations.

For example, the police are alerted to an armed robbery after the suspects took off in vehicle that a witness was able to get a partial license plate read on before the vehicle sped out of view. By consulting the ALPR database in real time, the police are able to track any ALPR locations the vehicle passed, helping law enforcement locate the suspects.

The ALPR data is used to feed into “hot lists” that are lists of vehicle license plates connected to a crime investigation or associated with a person of interest. However, because ALPRs do not discriminate between license plates, every vehicle that drives by an ALPR is fed into the system. In Los Angeles County, 99.9 percent of the APLR license plates do not make a match to a hot list, but the data is stored anyway.

Every criminal case rests on the evidence. That is why the most recent Orange County Sheriff’s Department scandal is so disturbing. Or as on Orange County Public Defender put it: The implications of this scandal are massive. Orange County law enforcement is no stranger to scandal. In recent years, there have been crime lab scandals, informant scandals, and exculpatory evidence scandals.   And now we learn that the more than a few sheriff deputies were failing to follow protocol regarding evidence booking and much worse. This latest scandal could affect thousands of Orange County criminal cases.

An audit conducted on the Sheriff’s Department revealed that over 70% of the Sheriff Department’s deputies failed to book evidence according to the department’s procedure. In some cases, the evidence was booked days, weeks, or even months late and in some cases, the evidence was never booked at all. Another audit revealed that 47% of Sheriff Deputy reports that supposedly included evidence did not—in other words, the deputies lied on their reports. By some accounts, there are 9,000 missing pieces of evidence.

Incredibly, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has known about this problem for at least two years but kept it under wraps—even apparently hiding it from the District Attorney, although the Orange County Sheriff maintains that the department was not obliged to inform the district attorney. It was brought to light by an assistant Orange County public defender, which prompted an article about the scandal in the Orange County Register. Understandably District Attorney Todd Spitzer is not happy about this, observing that this is part of a larger pattern of “systemic problem or failure” within the Sheriff’s Department. The auditors who discovered this multitude of irregularities euphemistically blamed it on the Sheriff’s Department’s “cultural idleness.” No matter what you call it, this is a big deal.

Four suspects were recently arrested for their involvement in a scam targeting elderly women in Southern California. The scammers would approach older women claiming they needed help cashing what was presented as a winning lottery ticket. The victims were all Latina women and the four suspects conducted their scam mostly in Spanish.

The scammers asked the victims to call a phone number on the ticket for instructions. The phone number was part of the scam and a co-conspirator would pose as a lottery official telling the victim that the ticket holder had to put up a deposit to claim the winnings. The scammer would tell the victim that he or she didn’t have the required deposit and would suggest that the victim put up the deposit and then split the winnings. Of course, as soon as the gullible victim gave the scammer money or jewelry, the scammer fled.

The tactics used to lure these elderly women were, on occasion, appalling.  In one instance, a 76-year-old victim came upon one of the scammers sitting on the ground crying. When the concerned victim sought to comfort the scammer, she was told by the scammer that she had a lottery ticket with a large payout but because she was undocumented, she was unable to claim the winnings. The victim, after falling prey to the entire scam, provided the crying scammer with thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry.

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.