Articles Posted in Criminal Defense

California corrections officials on Friday began accepting public comments on the new set of proposed regulations that have overhauled the state parole system. See Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. State regulators gave the guidelines initial approval in April. They have been used to implement Proposition 57.

Last November, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 57 (64% to 35%) which would emphasize rehabilitation and incentivizing inmates to play a role in their own rehabilitation through credit-earning opportunities for sustained good behavior. Proposition 57 also allows the state Board of Parole Hearings to grant early release to those convicted of nonviolent crimes, and allows the moves up parole consideration of nonviolent offenders who have served the full-term of the sentence for their primary offense and are not determined to pose a risk to their community.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued a Public Notice on July 14, 2017 which begins the public comment period for a minimum of 45 days. This would allow the public to submit comments regarding Prop. 57 through mail, fax, and email. Changes to the credit system began in May and the new parole eligibility requirements took effect this month. Final approval is expected in the fall.

However, the rules have come under fire from law enforcement and prosecutors who have largely opposed Proposition 57. Specifically, they are concerned that Proposition 57 did not include language exempting sex offenders from the process.

Parole Conditions

Regardless of who is eligible to be released and when, all inmates released from a California State prison are subject to conditions of parole that must be followed. Some parolees also have special conditions of parole which must also be followed.

General conditions that apply to all parolees include:

  • You and your residence and your possessions can be searched at any time of the day or night, with or without a warrant, and with or without a reason, by any parole agent or police officer. See CA Penal Code § 3067.
  • You must report to your parole agent within one day of your release from prison or jail.
  • You must always update your parole agent with updates to your address and phone number.
  • You must notify your parole agent within three days if the location of any job changes.
  • You must get permission from parole agent for permission to travel more than 50 miles from your residence.

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A graduate student at Cal State San Marcos accused of rape has filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the university violated his rights to due process through an unfair investigation. The student, who is not identified by name in the suit, was attending a study abroad program in Germany in 2016.  Last October, he learned that a fellow student in the program had accused him of rape. However, no criminal charges were ever filed even though the university launched its own investigation.

His degree and transcripts were placed on hold once the investigation started. Allegedly, the school did not provide him with the report or his accuser’s statements or other documents. He was found guilty by the university of sexual misconduct in March. The lawsuit now argues that by withholding his academic credentials, without giving him the chance to defend himself, the university breached his constitutional rights to due process under the fifth and fourteenth amendments. In other words, he is alleging that his procedural due process has been violated because the school’s ‘procedure’ denied him access to anything regarding the accusations against him.

Officials for Cal State San Marcos pointed to the university’s policies under Title IX, which forbid discrimination in education. This means the school must create and sustain an educational environment free of sexual violence and misconduct.

This is not the first time that universities in California have come under controversy for their handling of sexual assault allegations. Back in 2015, a California court ruled that the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) acted improperly while adjudicating a sexual assault case, noting that the student was not allowed to findings of the university or cross-examine his accuser. Also in 2015, San Diego State University reversed the suspension of a male student after finding allegations of sexual misconduct against him were unsubstantiated, and he sued the school.

Due Process in Schools

Students facing possible suspension or expulsion from public colleges and universities are entitled to due process protections because their liberty and property are at stake, and because public schools take money from the state, making them state (government) actors, to an extent, in a disciplinary proceeding. This means at an absolute minimum, students in campus disciplinary cases are entitled to have notice of the charges against them, an explanation of the evidence against them, and an opportunity to defend themselves in the process, such as hearings.  See Goss v. Lopez, U.S. Supreme Court (1975).

When a school denies you your right to due process, this can be used as a defense to a suspension or expulsion decision. Continue reading

Months after the criminal trial of the nine defendants involved in the Oregon Wildlife refuge standoff were acquitted, it has been reported that F.B.I. agent W. Joseph Astarita, 40, has been indicted on five counts regarding the lethal shooting of Lavoy Finicum. The agent is now being accused of lying about firing two shots at Finicum. He is being charged with two counts of obstruction of justice and three counts of making a false statement. Astarita has pleaded “not guilty” on all charges and will remain out of custody pending trial.

Astarita is accused of firing twice at Finicum but missing him. The indictment says Astarita, who served as a member of the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team, “falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Robert LaVoy Finicum, when he knew then and there that he had fired his weapon.” He is accused of lying to three supervisors in the F.B.I. for not alerting the Oregon investigators or the FBI’s Shooting Incident Response Team that he fired his weapon.

It was state troopers, and not the F.B.I. that fired the three lethal shots that killed Finicum.

This criminal indictment stems from an 18-month-long investigation by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice.  However, the Oregon Attorney general stated that this indictment still does not change the findings that Oregon State Police were justified in using deadly force against Finicum.

What is Obstruction of Justice?

Obstruction of justice can be generally defined as interference with the administration of criminal investigation. It can consist of bribery, murder, intimidation, lying—anything to hinder the criminal investigation process. The crime is covered by different federal and state statutes.

In 2016, a study conducted by researchers at Bowling Green State University and funded by the National Institute of Justice found that police officers are getting arrested around 1,000 times per year. larmingly, 41% of the total crimes were committed while on duty, concluding that police, breaking the laws they are supposed to be upholding, is not that uncommon.

CA Obstruction of Justice

Section 148 of the California Penal Code makes it a crime to willfully “resist, delay or obstruct” a cop or first responder in the performance of on-the-job duties, which includes lying to an officer in an investigation, providing misleading information, destroying evidence, etc.  If convicted you face a $1,000 fine and a year imprisonment.

One of the most important questions that could come up in an obstruction of justice charge is whether the police violated your Constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. Continue reading

Earlier this month the criminal trial of Jacob Paul Skorniak, 51, started in San Diego Superior Court. Skorniak is accused of kidnapping and raping a 21-year-old German exchange student he met in Pacific Beach during New Year’s celebrations. He is also accused of using a knife to attack the victim. Skorniak has testified that it was consensual, but the young woman, who has since returned to Germany, has chosen not to return to San Diego to testify at the trial. She was reportedly initially cooperating with the prosecution. Even without victim testimony, the jury ultimately found Skorniak guilty of the charges of rape, kidnapping with intent to commit rape, and sexual penetration of an unconscious person.

In his case, Skorniak actually recorded the crime he committed and it was played for the jury. The victim also inadvertently dialed her cell phone during the assault and her parents answered in Germany. Her father testified that he screamed into the phone until the line went dead.

Everyone knows that being accused of rape is a serious matter. While there may be legal defenses in a situation, we will seek to explain the type of evidence that typically goes into a rape trial.

What if There is No Victim Testimony?

Usually, the most compelling evidence at a rape trial is the testimony of the victim. There is no law mandating that victims of sex crimes have to testify. Prosecutors may still decide to prosecute even without the victim’s testimony if there is other evidence that makes them think they have a case. They will also consider witness testimony as evidence to bring to trial.

What Kind of Evidence is used in Rape Cases?

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim.  Therefore, the identity of the person is usually known. However, prosecutors also have to rely on other evidence to prove that the accused committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This includes physical and forensic evidence, such as bruises and cuts on the victim, torn clothing, and DNA evidence or other witness evidence. Continue reading

According to news outlet ABC 10, a Carlsbad pastor named Matthew Tague, 43, has been arrested on 16 counts of child molestation. Deputies with the San Diego Sheriff’s child abuse unit has charged him with lewd and lascivious acts with a minor under the age of 14. The charges against Tague, a pastor at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, are not related to his duties as a pastor. Tague is currently being held in Vista Detention Facility on $1.9 million bail. He was due in court on June 2.

Once he appeared in court, he pleaded “not guilty” to charges of repeatedly molesting a female member of his congregation for two years. He also pleaded “not guilty” to charges of 14 forcible sex acts against a child. Additionally, Deputy District Attorney Patricia Lavermicocca said Tague is accused of violating a family member when s/he was 12 and 13 years old. It is reported that Tague’s wife caught him abusing the victim, and turned him in.

Child Molestation Under California Law

Not only are sex crimes taken seriously in California, but sex crimes against children are viewed upon by society as even worse. Just being accused of a sexual offense against a child can ruin your life and reputation.

There are several sections in the California Penal Code that address sex crimes against children.

Lewd or Lascivious Acts with a Minor (Penal Code § 288)

A lewd or lascivious act against a minor is defined as touching any part of the body (bare or covered) of a minor or forcing him or her to touch themselves for the purposes of sexually arousing or gratifying yourself or the victim. Subsection (a) of the statute states that if the victim was under 14, it is a felony punishable by up to eight years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

Subsection (b) of the statute addresses lewd acts against a minor under the age of 18, by fear of duress or violence. A conviction under this subsection is also a felony punishable by 10 yrs imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

Subsection (c) specifies that if the victim was under 14 or 15 years old, and you are at least 10 years older than the victim, you will also face a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison.

Soliciting a Minor for Lewd Purposes (Penal Code § 288.4)

Solicitation of any child under the age of 18 can either be a misdemeanor or felony, punishable by up one to three years imprisonment and a $1,000 to $10,000 fine. Continue reading

The saga of Bill Crosby’s criminal trial for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting dozens of women is finally over, as earlier this month, a Pennsylvania jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision, resulting in a mistrial.

It is reported that on the sixth day of jury deliberations, two of the 12 jurors prevented a guilty verdict. The jury reportedly deliberated for 53 hours and asked 12 questions of the court during deliberations. An anonymous juror told ABC News that 10 out of the 12 jurors believed Cosby was guilty in two out of the three counts filed against him. The third count had the vote of 11 of the 12 jurors.

During the trial, prosecutors called 12 witnesses, including Andrea Constand, the woman who first came forward with allegations against Cosby.  She endured over a week of testimony with no forensic evidence.

Constand first told police about the alleged assault in January 2005, a year after she says it took place. The district attorney at the time declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence. She thereafter sued Cosby in a civil suit and settled for an undisclosed amount in 2006.

Judge O’Neill, the judge presiding over the trial, declared the mistrial with prosecutors announcing that they plan to retry the case.

What Exactly is a Mistrial?

In the criminal justice system, a mistrial (also called a “hung jury”) is one that is not successfully completed. In other words, the jury cannot come to a decision even when it is given the adequate time to deliberate.   

Mistrials can occur for a number of reasons, including the death of the attorney, juror misconduct, or a prejudicial error unfair to the defendant. The most common reason for mistrial is a “hung jury,” when different members cannot come to a conclusion as to the guilt of the defendant.  Either side may file a motion for mistrial, which is either granted or denied by the presiding judge.  The government can still seek for a re-trial when there is a mistrial.

Juries Must be Unanimous for Criminal Trials

In federal court, whether the trial is criminal or civil, juries must reach a unanimous verdict. In state courts, almost every state requires a unanimous verdict in criminal trials.

In criminal trials, 12 jurors has traditionally been the norm, with a few outlier states that allow for six jurors (ie. Florida allows for six-person juries in criminal trials). Continue reading

In a 6-5 opinion (United States v. Sanchez-Gomez), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just found the San Diego District Court’s 2013 shackling policy for pretrial defendants unconstitutional- “likening the court’s policy to treating inmates “like a bear on a chain.” While it is a significant ruling, the opinion is moot for the San Diego criminal court system because it no longer has the same restraint policy from 2013. The San Diego federal court had enacted the policy after the U.S. Marshals Service cited safety concerns due to understaffing and an uptick in violence. Federal Defenders of San Diego, a non-profit which provides public defense for defendants, sued over the policy on behalf of four people charged with crimes such as illegal re-entry, drug importation, and misuse of a passport.

U.S. District Chief Judge Barry T. Moskowitz decided to defer to the marshals on security, allowing the default policy to be the use of five-point restraints — leg and hand shackles connected by a belly band — during routine hearings. Now, overturning the lower court, the 9th Circuit ruling would only allow for shackling if it would serve a compelling purpose. The majority opinion found that “a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere.” Rather, the higher court noted that each defendant must be assessed on a case-by case basis on whether they should be shackled on both the hands and feet. The judges noted that the “constitutional liberties” of defendants must be defended.

Your Constitutional Rights

It is widely accepted that pretrial detainees have the same rights as convicted prisoners.

You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in a courtroom. While the U.S. constitution does not explicitly use these words, the 14th Amendment guarantee to due process denotes that even  defendants have the right to fairness, dignity, respect, and privacy within our criminal justice system. This concept of human dignity is one that has been refined by the courts in its interpretation of the constitution.  The Supreme Court in Deck v. Missouri held that the use of visible shackles during jury proceedings would prejudice the jury against the defendant. The recent 9th Circuit ruling clarified the scope of the right to dignity to pretrial proceedings.

Your are also presumed to be innocent until found guilty. See Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S. Ct. 1930, 56 L. Ed. 2d 468 (1978). The 9th circuit clarifies that shackling before a defendant is even convicted or sentenced weakens that presumption. Continue reading

In the latest of the terrifying bills that have come out of our current Congress, Republicans in the House and Senate recently introduced two companion bills they are calling the Back the Blue Act of 2017, to keep up with the Trump Administration’s rhetoric of “law and order.” S.1134 was introduced by John Cornyn (R-Tex.), and is co-sponsored by 15 senators, all Republicans.  H.R.2437 as introduced by Ted Poe (R-Tex.), and includes five co-sponsors, also all Republicans.

What the Bills do

The bills would create a new category of federal crimes for killing or attempting to kill a state or local law enforcement officer who works for a police agency that receives federal funding. It in effect treats all local police agencies as federal agencies because nearly all police agencies already receive some sort of federal funding. The bill would also allow for the federal death penalty in such cases, and it would impose limits on the ability of defendants to file habeas petitions in federal court after they have exhausted their appeals.

The bill would also make it a federal crime to “assault” any police officer, bringing a federal mandatory prison sentence of two to 10 years.

Additionally, the bills would allow a district attorney to overrule local officials if he or she did not like the way those officials were handling a case involving a police death. As it stands, the language of the proposed legislation explicitly authorizes federal prosecutions in cases where  “the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively un-vindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence.”

Qualified Immunity

It has always been the case that police actions are covered under qualified immunity, which means that in order for a victim’s lawsuit to proceed, the plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit must show that not only were his or her rights violated, but also that a reasonable police officer should have known that the actions in question were a violation of the Constitution (essentially that the police intentionally violated his or her rights).

Under the language of this proposed bill, police would only be liable for out-of-pocket expenses and not statutory punitive damages, such as in instances of Section 1983 lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act. Lastly, the bills would bar plaintiffs from recovering attorneys fees under Section 1988 of the Civil Rights Act.

The bills are being opposed by civil rights and accountability groups nation-wide. Continue reading

In Alameda county, California lawmakers are considering a contentious bill that would end lifetime registration for certain sex offenders. The lawmaker who introduced the bill, Nancy O’Malley, and the District Attorney of Alameda County’s intent is to save the state money, since it is extremely expensive to monitor sex offenders.

Senate Bill 421 would reorganize the sex offender registry into a tiered system and group existing registered offenders into three categories based on the severity of their crimes. A certain number of offenders would be dropped from the list as soon as 2018. “There are people who are still registering who are now 80 years old and they register every year because when they were 18 years old they exposed themselves, there’s injustice in some of that,” says Ms. O’Malley.

The bill passed the state Senate’s Committee on Public Safety on last month. Proponents of the new bill say that lightening the work load of law enforcement will give them more time to focus on high-risk offenders that actually need monitoring.

Currently, a state tax force has 2,500 sex offenders to keep track of. There is currently an estimated 104,000 registered sex offenders statewide.

Potential Changes in California’s Sex Offender Registry

Most U.S. states already have a tiered system for sex offenders. But under current California law, all sex offenders have to register with law enforcement for the rest of their lives, no matter if they committed a nonviolent misdemeanor crime like indecent exposure (ie. urinating in public) or a violent felony rape.

If passed into law, S.B. 421 would create a tiered system for sex offenders:

  • Tier 1: Misdemeanor or non-violent sex offenders would have to register for 10 years.  This encompasses situations like when a young college student has too much to drink and exposes him or herself publicly.
  • Tier 2: Convicts who committed serious or certain violent offenses would have to remain on the list for 20 years.
  • Tier 3: Violent high-risk sex predators will remain on the list for the rest of their lives.  This includes sex offenders who violated Megan’s Law.

A sex offender’s removal from the registry would not be automatic. Offenders who qualify for removal would still have to petition the court and have their application reviewed by their local district attorney, who has to consider factors like the risk of re-offending. Continue reading

According to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the over four million traffic tickets handed out to the state’s drivers each year should no longer be criminal charges. If other lawmakers agree with her, California drivers would spend less time in court and would no longer face fines of up to $300 and possible license suspensions for failing to show up for a hearing.

A panel called the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System has recommended this traffic ticket proposal in an attempt to improve Californian’s interactions with the judicial system. Ms. Cantil-Sakauye wants the Judicial Council to study and report on the proposals by September in the Fall.

The traffic proposals are the latest response to the slew of driver suspensions brought on indirectly by the court system’s financial deficits. California courts have been padding their budgets by adding surcharges to traffic tickets — $490 to the standard $100 fine for a minor violation. When drivers miss payment deadlines, they face additional penalties and license suspensions. A statewide report in 2015 found that 4.2 million Californians had their licenses suspended between 2006 and 2013 for failing to pay traffic fines and penalties. Poor people were hit the hardest.

Under this proposal, traffic infractions would be moved to the civil court system. If a driver fails to show up in court, the judge can decide whether the law had been violated, but he or she could no longer impose a fine of up to $300 for nonappearance or suspend the driver’s license.  However, the proposal would not eliminate license suspensions for failing to pay fines and penalties for the original offense. The proposal would need to be approved by the state legislature and the governor.

State senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) has a new bill, SB185, that would prevent the state from automatically suspending licenses of drivers unable to pay fines for minor traffic tickets and would require courts to base fines on drivers’ ability to pay

Legal Implications

By switching out of the criminal law system into a civil one, it is now easier for the state to prove a violation. For criminal cases, prosecutors have to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The switch to a civil system means prosecutors only need to prove guilt by a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning that over 50% of the evidence points to the defendant’s guilt. Continue reading