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Articles Posted in Criminal

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.

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 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.

Popular crime shows would have you believe that the analysis of forensic evidence is the key to finding the perpetrator of a crime. But is forensic evidence reliable?  DNA evidence, blood spatter patterns, bite marks, finger prints and other common types of forensic evidence have been subjected to scrutiny and some just don’t hold up. For example, I previously wroteabout an innocent man who spent 33 years in prison based on bite mark analysis – a forensic evidence technique that has been discredited in the scientific community but continues to be used by prosecutors.

Similarly, other forensic analysis methods have been questioned, or even debunked, by science but continue to be an important part of the prosecution’s arsenal. In the popular imagination, these techniques provide a slam-dunk conviction. But most members of the public, from whom a jury of peers is selected, would be surprised to learn—and perhaps even reject—the proposition that quite often forensic evidence is nothing but junk science. Overcoming this bias takes the persuasive skills of criminal defense attorney who is up on the science and can communicate a reasonable doubt about the forensic evidence.

Here’s one that may surprise the average reader: Even positive DNA evidence may not be evidence at all. The common assumption is that if a suspect’s DNA is found on the victim or at a crime scene, the suspect is positively implicated in the crime. But that is not always true. Often the DNA evidence is in trace amounts but is thought to be conclusive evidence of the suspect’s presence at the scene. DNA analysis has become so sophisticated that forensic technologists can pick up even the smallest amounts of DNA. The problem is that humans shed DNA all the time and everywhere. When you touch anything, you will leave your DNA. Another person touching the same object can then pick up your DNA. This is referred to as the “touch-transfer” property of DNA. So, imagine that you took a public bus. Another passenger on that bus picked up your DNA and shortly thereafter committed a crime. Your DNA may very well show up in forensic analysis, implicating you in the crime.

Not just in California, but across the county, bail reformis a hot topic. Why? Because the bail systemeffectively consigns many defendants to incarceration before they are found guilty…or innocent. Defendants who are unable to come up with the funds to make bail often remain incarcerated until final judgment, but those with means are able to make bail and secure their release from jail prior to the final adjudication of their case. Not only does this result in the incarceration of many “innocent until proven guilty” individuals, it creates an unfair system where those with money can pay to get out of jail while awaiting disposition while those with limited funds and resources cannot.

California, like many states, is struggling to address the money bail system. The Bail Reform Bill, Senate Bill 10, which was introduced by the California Legislature in December of 2016 was recently approved by Governor Brown and is scheduledto go into effect on October 1, 2019. This new law will effectively eliminate the money bail system. California is the first state in the union to enact such a law.

The new bail system will require judges to decide whether to release someone from jail prior to final judgment (i.e., conviction by trial or pleaor a dismissal) based on a pre-trial risk assessment of the defendant. The risk assessment will be conducted by Pretrial Assessment Services using a “validated risk assessment tool.” The assessment tool will give each defendant a “risk score.” The assessment tool is designed to evaluate the risk of a defendant’s evasion of the charges (for example, fleeing the state or failing to appear) and the defendant’s risk to public safety. The language of the bill creates low, medium, and high risk categories. Once this bill is enacted, a defendant will not be required to post bail. (You might wonder what will happen to all the bail bond companies. It looks like they will go the way of the proverbial buggy-whip maker and, at least in California, will have to find other work.)