Articles Posted in court system

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We’ve all heard of it, but unless you need it you probably have no idea exactly how it works or how to get it. The idea behind bail is to prevent a defendant from running away after he or she has been arrested. The theory is that if someone puts up a large amount of money, he is not likely to walk away from it. The other reason to set bail is, danger to the community. The more serious the crime the higher the bail.

Recently there has been a move to change the structure of bail as some feel it discriminates against poor people. Although the bail amount is determined by the severity of the crime not the financial status of the person who committed it, clearly someone who is poor will have a harder time affording it than someone who is wealthy.

The amount of the bail is pre-set according to a bail schedule, based on the seriousness of the crime. The theory is that if someone posts a million dollars of bail money, he is likely to show up in court to protect his money. The more serious the crime, the more incentive a defendant might have to flee from punishment, so the higher the bail.

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In a criminal case, a defendant is entitled to a unanimous verdict by all the jurors selected to hear his case.  Many times if only one juror votes in a defendant’s favor it’s a win for the defense.  The prosecutor  may choose not to go to trial again and dismiss the case or will plea bargain the case in a way that benefits the defendant.  Many times when a jury is hung with the count overwhelmingly in favor of one side or the other (usually against the defendant) the judge and the DA will try to identify the holdout juror, isolate that juror, and remove the juror in order to get a resolution of the case.

That’s what happened recently in the case of People v Armstrong, a 2016 from the 4th District Court of Appeal.  The defendant was facing the death penalty and was in the penalty phase of the trial.  In other words, he was guilty, but now the jury had to decide whether to vote for death or life in prison without parole.  One juror was refusing to vote for death and became the “hold out” blocking a verdict.  The judge removed the juror from the case in light of the frustration expressed by the other jurors.  However, there wasn’t any showing that the juror wasn’t participating in deliberations.  In fact, the juror was deliberating but just disagreed with the other jurors’ conclusions. Removing the juror was found to be error and caused the court to reverse the death sentence.

The role of the defense lawyer when a jury appears to reach an impasse is critical.  A mistrial declared because a jury can’t reach a unanimous verdict is almost always a victory for the defendant.  Any time the prosecution can’t get a conviction in trial the defendant wins.  The defense attorney has to object at the right time and must seek a mistrial and a “do over” whenever possible.  If the defense lawyer is “asleep at the wheel” and doesn’t raise the objection at all or doesn’t raise the right one the defendant suffers.  Getting the right lawyer who stays on top of the case can make all the difference.  It can even determine life and death.  Whether it’s a death penalty case, like Mr. Armstrong’s, or one with a much lesser penalty every case needs the trial lawyer to stay strong, alert, and make the right moves.

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California Vehicle Code Section 2800.1 and 2800.2 make it illegal to flee or attempt to evade a police officer. The individual who flees from the police after the police turn on the overhead lights would seem to be in for trouble. What with helicopters, sophisticated radio communication, and everyone on social media instantly following the chase it would seem to be a hopeless proposition. In fact, fleeing from the police can result in a felony conviction punishable by up to 3 years in State Prison and a $10,000.00 fine. If someone is injured during the chase the punishment goes up to a possible 7 years in State Prison and again a $10,000.00 fine. If someone just simply refuses to stop and pull over it can be a misdemeanor.

In order to be guilty of a crime of felony evading a police officer the officer had to have an emergency light illuminated, a siren was sounding as necessary, the person is willfully attempting to evade and is driving in a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property. Ironically, all of the reckless and wanton driving can occur with lights flashing and siren wailing but if the prosecutor doesn’t do his or her job, a defendant can still be found not guilty. For one fortunate defendant in a recent case, a Mr. Byrd (People v Byrd, July 29, 2016, D.A.R. 7772), the strict requirements of proof worked to his advantage. The prosecutor in Mr. Byrd’s case failed to prove that the pursuing officers, not just one officer but both, were wearing distinctive uniforms as required by Vehicle Code Section 2800.1. That being said, Mr. Byrd’s conviction was overturned on appeal because the prosecutor did not prove the police were wearing their uniforms.


The apparent lesson to be learned is no matter how egregious the conduct, the prosecutor still has to prove all the elements of the crime and if they aren’t proven, there is hope for everyone charged with a crime.  Of course, you need to have a defense attorney who understands this and can capitalize on the mistakes of the prosecutor.

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I have had many clients come to me and say, either jokingly or for real, can’t I pay someone to “take care of this?” I always laughingly say, “This isn’t Chicago with Al Capone and gangsters running the courts”. Apparently, I was wrong. At least 600 cases involving traffic citations, DUI arrests, and other assorted cases being “fixed” are being investigated in the Orange County court system.

Many defendants in Orange County are being called into court to explain how their cases were either dismissed, fines suspended, charges reduced, or otherwise resolved all without anyone actually appearing on their matters. The answer appears to be that a clerk in a supervisorial position in the Orange County court entered into the record fraudulent transactions resolving the cases in return for lots of money.

From many defendants’ point of view the idea of paying someone to handle their case is in line with their cultural beliefs. Many in our community have recently immigrated from countries where paying money to government officials to resolve their matters without going to court is a way of life. Coming to the United States and continuing that practice is not something that is seen as criminal but is a normal manner of dealing with the government. A large segment of the community is not educated in the law and as long as they don’t have to go to court and face a judge, paying more than would be required to a third party is a small price to pay.

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Wyoming-Prison.jpgRecently an inmate in Wyoming was released after serving 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Many states recognize the injustice suffered by the wrongfully imprisoned and require the state compensate the victim. When our system of justice fails it can have disastrous consequences for those victimized. The criminal justice system is not infallible, and when it makes a mistake that costs a person most of his adult life there is a method of providing monetary compensation.

In Wyoming the State Legislature decides if the innocent is worthy of compensation and how much. In this case, Mr. Andrew “A.J.” Johnson had a criminal record prior to his being incarcerated for 24 years for a crime he did not commit. You might think that spending 24 years in prison is worth some kind of compensation. You might think that 24 years of your life spent wasting away in a prison cell, when you are innocent of the crime charged, would be worthy of some type of compensation by those who wrongfully took your freedom and liberty away. In Wyoming, you would be wrong.

You see, Mr. Johnson had a criminal record prior to his being wrongfully accused and convicted and put away. He had a record for theft and burglary. In Wyoming that means the legislature does not feel it necessary to compensate him for the 24 years spent in prison. In fact, Mr. Johnson was awarded nothing. He was given no compensation for losing most of his life to a criminal justice system that failed him.

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Ever wonder just how a case gets filed? Let’s say you and a neighbor get into a shouting match and the police are called. You are interviewed by the police, as is the other guy. You are not cited for anything, nor is the other person. 3 months later you receive a letter in the mail informing you that you have a date to appear in court to answer charges of assault and battery stemming from the incident. How did that happen?

Once the police are called to the scene, whether anyone is arrested or not, a police report is taken. At this point the police officer can make a judgment call as to whether to forward the police report on to the District Attorney’s office. If the officer decides that a crime has NOT taken place he will simply file the report and nothing more will come of it.

If the officer determines that, in his opinion, a crime has occurred, her report will be sent to the District Attorney’s office. That report will land on the desk of the filing deputy district attorney and it will be that person’s job to determine whether he or she thinks a crime has been committed and whether there appears to be enough evidence to prove a crime.

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Secret-Bail-Hearing.jpgThink secret bail hearings only exist in fiction? Unfortunately the answer is no, even though the 6th amendment to the constitution guarantees everyone the right to a public trial if they’re accused of a criminal act. The United States Supreme Court has long held that this right extends to pre-trial hearings and motions. (Waller v. Georgia)

Bail hearings are no different, as the outcome of a bail hearing directly decides whether or not defendants must remain in custody while they await trial! (United States v. Abuhamra). That’s what makes the recent decision in In Re Carrillo so unsettling. (In Re Carrillo 219 Cal.App.4th 572). Mr. Carrillo was arrested on charges of committing assault with a deadly weapon. At his initial bail hearing, Mr. Carrillo’s bail was set at $90,000. Then, without any notice to Mr. Carrillo, and without giving him a chance to contest, the Judge and Prosecutors held a second, closed door bail hearing. At this bail hearing Prosecutors presented “confidential” evidence indicating they believed Mr. Carrillo was a threat to the community and should post a larger bail. The Judge took the Prosecution at its word, and set Mr. Carrillo’s bail at $1,000,000.

Mr. Carrillo had no chance to contest the information presented to the Judge. He didn’t even know what was presented to the Judge. He just knew that without his knowledge a warrant was issued for his arrest, even though as far as he knew he had posted bail. The Court in his case found this to be a violation of his rights, but in doing so laid out a perfect plan for any Prosecutor wishing to repeat this feat without getting in trouble. What are the magic steps? Well, the Prosecutor has to give notice, but the defendant still doesn’t have the right to be present! As long as he knows the “gist” of what is being presented at this hearing, and as long as the Judge makes an independent determination that the information being presented is reliable, well then it’s just fine to raise a defendant’s bail to $1,000,000! It’s now possible to have secret search warrants (People v. Hobbs 7 Cal.4th 948), anonymous juries (People v. Thomas 53 Cal.4th 771), and secret witnesses (US v. Jesus-Casteneda 705 Fed.3d 1117). With this new attack on the fundamental concept of presumption of innocence, it’s no wonder the average defendant thinks he faces a presumption of guilt regardless of what the Constitution says.

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Just because you’re guilty of committing a crime with a mandatory jail sentence doesn’t mean you have to serve time in jail! Many crimes in California carry mandatory minimum jail sentences. Most commonly those who receive a second DUI conviction within 10 years of their first will find themselves facing time in the county jail. If it’s mandatory it must mean there’s no way to avoid it right? It must mean hiring a lawyer just isn’t worth it; after all how could they possibly help you?

Well, turns out that in California a savvy criminal defense lawyer would know that secured electronic confinement (SEC) is always an option! SEC can take many forms in California, depending on the county you live in. While many people think it literally means you can only stay in your house, that’s not true. Your lawyer can attempt to get exceptions for work, school, or other necessary tasks you must attend to on a regular basis.

So how does this process work? Let’s say the District Attorney doesn’t want to budge and will only offer a plea deal involving 60 days of jail(!). If the DA will not agree to SEC, your attorney can still ask the Judge if he would be willing to grant some or all of that time as SEC. Even if the *Judge* doesn’t agree, you can ask the jail facility you are taken to if they are willing to release you on SEC. With the jails being so overcrowded in California, these requests are often granted. The problem is, if you don’t know about it then you won’t get it! Yet another reason to make sure you have good counsel, regardless of the charges against you.

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Just imagine this scenario: you get arrested for something, are released from the police station later that day, and never hear anything from the police or district attorney’s office again. Then months or maybe years later you get pulled over for a simple speeding ticket, or try to renew your driver’s license and find out there’s a warrant out for your arrest! This happens all the time! Because our courts are so backed up sometimes District Attorney’s offices simply don’t get around to pursuing and completing a criminal action against you. So without knowing it, you might have missed a court date, or have a warrant for your arrest and are seemingly a fugitive on the run!

But don’t worry! An experienced defense attorney knows that long delays during a criminal prosecution against you can be considered violations of your Constitutional right to a speedy trial. For instance, in California, if the District Attorney waits longer than a year to pursue and complete a criminal action against you, you are entitled to a dismissal! The District Attorney must have very good reasons for delaying in order to avoid this dismissal! Simply saying “we forgot!” or “we didn’t have the time or resources!” won’t work.

This process is known as filing a Serna motion, named after a famous case that established this right. While an inexperienced defense attorney might get caught up trying to argue the facts of your case or settle a plea agreement that is detrimental to you, a good attorney will first file a Serna motion and try to dismiss all allegations against you!

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One of the bedrocks of our justice system is the right to have a fair trial. Part and parcel of this is your right to have a jury of your peers impartially weigh the facts of your case and decide whether they believe you broke the law or not. Sometimes the only way to know whether or not you received a fair trial from a jury is to make sure you get out there and talk to them right after a verdict. A defense attorney or defendant is allowed to interview jurors if they are willing to talk, and this is an invaluable tool in making sure your trial was fair.

Recently I found out through an interview with a juror that my client very likely did not receive a fair trial. This juror was horrified at the behavior of her fellow colleagues. She informed me that some of the other jurors were improperly acting as if they had expert knowledge on certain technical subjects, and were openly persuading their fellow juror members that the experts who testified at this trial were wrong! Not only that, but they were belligerent and forceful! In the end this juror felt horrible for voting the way she did because she felt like she gave in to pressure and someone was wrongly found guilty because of it. She couldn’t believe the bias of her fellow jurors and their willingness to convict someone based on their “intuition” when so much evidence pointed to a different outcome.

Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, I knew instantly that I needed to file a “Motion for New Trial”, and let the judge know that the verdict against my client was improper. But I worry that less experienced or dedicated attorneys would never have caught this huge issue. It takes time and effort and a strong resolve to calmly meet and try to talk with a jury after a verdict, but it’s absolutely necessary to insuring a client received a fair trial by impartial, honest jurors. A good attorney knows that their obligation to a client is a full one, and it continues even after a trial.

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