Articles Tagged with California criminal defense attorney

Let’s say you pleaded guilty—or even a no-contest—and have since thought about it and decided that you made the wrong move with that plea. Maybe it was part of a plea agreement, and you were so frightened by the thought of a long prison sentence that you copped to lesser charges just to avoid that scenario. But with time, you just cannot stomach the idea of saying you did something when you are innocent.  Even though a no-contest plea does not necessarily admit to guilt, it does result in legal penalties. In your case, the paperwork’s been signed, so are you stuck in a deal you do not like? Maybe, maybe not. 

California Law

According to California Penal Code 1018, there are circumstances under which a defendant may withdraw a plea. It is not simply something you can choose willy-nilly, though. The law requires you to show good cause in order to file a motion to withdraw your plea. That means one of the following must be true:

You agreed to the plea before you had a lawyer to advise you;

  • You had a lawyer but believe they were incompetent/ineffective;
  • When you agreed to the deal, you did not understand the potential consequences;
  • Law enforcement and/or prosecutors failed to advise you of your constitutional rights;
  • You agreed to the plea deal, but it was presented in a language other than your native tongue, and you did not completely understand what you were doing.

What is the Timeline and Process?

As a defendant, you can feasibly back out of the plea arrangement any time before you have actually been sentenced or within six months of the judgment being entered. (Under limited circumstances, you can change your plea after being convicted and sentenced, but it is a much more time-consuming and complicated process!) Prior to sentencing, your attorney will simply file the paperwork and then attend a hearing with you to try to demonstrate to the court that you have good cause to change your plea. Things can go one of two ways from there:

  • The judge can deny the motion and will sentence you based on the charges you pleaded guilty to; OR
  • The judge will grant the motion, and you will go back to the beginning, where you plead not guilty to charges at the arraignment. (Obviously, any benefits you might have reaped by agreeing to the deal are forfeited at this point).

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Rumor has it that attorneys in some states hope for jury nullification at the end of a trial, knowing that it would be nearly impossible to get a “not guilty” verdict based on the facts of the case.  What is jury nullification, and what makes it so attractive in some cases? 

Defining Jury Nullification

Jury veto, juror pardon, or conscientious acquittal: sometimes, juries understand that a defendant may be guilty while opting to reject the evidence in the case because they believe the result of a guilty verdict would be unjust. Sometimes juries may be attempting to send a message about issues larger than the case at hand and believe they have the right to send that message through their verdict. In other situations, they may simply believe that the specifics of the particular case they are hearing warrant a not-guilty verdict in spite of a belief that the law was likely broken by the defendant. Here in California, our Supreme Court has taken that right away from juries, fearful of runaway juries who, in defending the conscience of the community at large, snub the laws on the books.

Historical Jury Nullifications

Jury nullification has been around for centuries! Fugitive Slave Laws were undermined when people who harbored escaped slaves were found to be “not guilty” by juries, despite stacks of evidence pointing to guilt. Alcohol prohibition laws were minimized when juries declined to convict guilty parties who’d violated laws related to alcohol control, a move in support of community values. More recently, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was found “not guilty” of murder three times when his involvement in “mercy killings” was relatively clear. In other situations, juries who believed drug laws were much too harsh have been unwilling to punish minor drug offenders in multiple states. When the enforcement of written laws is rejected, eventually laws around certain matters are simply unenforceable.

Is Jury Nullification Legal Elsewhere? 

While not necessarily encouraged, jury nullification is completely legal across the country. Sometimes prosecutors and/or judges will warn juries that jury nullification would be a relinquishment of their duty, but it is nonetheless a power that juries have in most of the United States. These verdicts cannot be overturned, and jurors cannot be punished for their verdict. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the most powerful legal minds in the world, publicly affirmed that she believes there is a place for jury nullification in our justice system. Whatever one’s thoughts on the issue, one study divulges that in 19% of cases, juries acquit when a judge would have leaned toward conviction, and roughly one-fifth of these acquittals were a result of jury nullification. 

How Do Jurors Know About this Option?

Since the late 1800’s courts have been reluctant to inform juries of jury nullification, let alone encourage it. In fact, in most cases, judges tell juries that it is, indeed, their duty to apply the law precisely as it is provided to them, even if they disagree with the law. In fact, some courts have determined that a juror who intends to nullify the law may be removed when reported by another juror. Though defense teams may wish for jury nullification, they are usually not allowed to propose it in their closing arguments. Unless a juror already knows about it, it likely will not happen. Nonetheless, it is something that dangles as an option in many courtrooms across the country. Continue reading

Anyone facing criminal charges is hoping for an outcome other than a guilty verdict. That can come through an acquittal, although sometimes it is quicker and easier to have the charges dropped or dismissed before ever reaching a courtroom. How can any of these results find their way to your case? 

Dropped Charges

Criminal charges are filed when a prosecutor thinks they have enough evidence to get a guilty verdict if the case makes it to trial. If the prosecutor has doubts about that, they may drop the charges and tell the police to find further evidence if they want the case to move forward. This can occur at any stage of the process.

Dismissed Charges 

When the prosecution believes they have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, they will press forward with the case. The issue of reasonable cause is weighed by a magistrate judge during a preliminary hearing, where the judge takes a look at the evidence at hand. If the judge believes there is probable cause to move forward, it is a green light to the prosecutor. If there is not a strong foundation for a case, on the other hand, the complaint will be dismissed, and the defendant is free to go.

What if the Victim Wants the Charges Dropped

Sometimes victims want charges to be dropped, but the final decision is the prosecutors. If the prosecutor thinks it is in the interest of public safety to continue on, they may have to ignore a victim’s request. However, if the victim fails to cooperate, it may destroy the prosecution’s case, resulting in dropped charges anyway. This happens in cases of domestic violence, for example, when victims choose not to testify against their abusers.

Reasons Prosecutors/Judges May Choose to Drop or Dismiss Cases

There are plenty of situations when cases are dropped or dismissed, and a defendant walks away from the whole thing. While there may be a possibility that the case comes back to haunt a defendant later down the road, sometimes the case takes a turn in a whole new direction. Circumstances that could lead to a reprieve include:

  • Lack of evidence to support a guilty verdict;
  • Request by the victim to drop the case;
  • New information that contradicts the original theory of the crime;
  • Problems with evidence being inadmissible for one reason or another;
  • Issues relating to a defendant’s constitutional rights being violated;
  • An acceptable plea deal is reached wherein a defendant pleads guilty to lesser charges in exchange for lesser penalties.

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If criminal charges have you headed for a trial and you are determined to testify in your own defense, be prepared for a rough cross-examination experience. Prosecutors know how to paint people in a negative light, and they will undoubtedly be prepared to try to overwhelm you with a variety of questions and techniques 

Prosecutors’ Goals

A prosecutor is single-mindedly trying to undercut your story by attempting to catch you in discrepancies and inconsistencies. They will try to get you to confirm the facts that they have presented while simultaneously dinging your credibility, all in pursuit of a guilty verdict. You can anticipate a premeditated and planned-out attack.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech in this country. Nonetheless, we hear about judges issuing gag orders in high-profile cases, clearly restricting the speech of individuals connected to both civil and/or criminal trials. What gives? 

The Point of Gag Orders

Judges typically issue gag orders—sometimes called non-dissemination orders– to restrict people from talking about a case publicly. They can apply to witnesses, attorneys, plaintiffs, and defendants. Protecting the integrity of the court system is the goal of these orders, as judges strive to keep potential jurists from hearing about the case outside of the courtroom. Even so, they are quite controversial because limiting speech is contrary to the First Amendment. 

Hazing occurs in high schools and colleges across the country, notwithstanding extensive publicity detailing the dangers associated with it, in concert with laws on the books penalizing those who perpetuate it. Here in California, we have seen our fair share of hazing resulting in horrendous outcomes: 

  • A high school football player in Rancho Cucamonga pleaded with teammates to stop while held in a chokehold and beaten with a belt in the locker room of the school.
  • A student attending a Riverside college died of heart failure in the course of five weeks of physical abuse.

Here in California and across the nation, police use spit hoods to protect officers from being spit on or bitten when individuals engage in this behavior or threaten to, during arrests, transfers, or otherwise, as necessary. It is understandable that police want to avoid such attacks—but there are real concerns about the safety of these hoods.  

More About Spit Hoods

These hoods are really just mesh sacks that are placed over an offender’s head, sometimes made with material like what is used in medical masks on the bottom. They have an elastic ring around the opening. The mesh is made to allow wearers to breathe and see while containing any fluids that may be ejected.

These masks are viewed as a restraint, like cuffs or leg irons, and not a use of force. However, it seems that the use of hoods in conjunction with takedowns, strikes, pressure points and other uses of force can result in serious consequences.

Other factors that might make hoods more dangerous for wearers include having drugs in their system or suffering a mental health crisis that may have elevated a person’s heart rate and/or impacted breathing.

Study Conclusions

There is a fair amount of research showing that even the most heavyweight spit hoods out there are easier to breathe in than N95 masks. People who tested the masks say they could breathe even when artificial saliva was sprayed on the hoods to copy what a realistic situation might be like. 

But the studies were very different from real life in another way: they lacked the chaos and stress that go hand in hand with a typical arrest. Subjects in the study were not upset; they had not recently tried to escape by running from officers; they had not resisted arrest; and had not suffered tactical maneuvers at the hands of police to get them under control. In other words, they were likely not experiencing a rise in blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and emotion.

In the Real World

What do people who have had to wear spit hoods outside of a controlled environment have to say about them? It is scary and makes one feel as though they could lose consciousness if things went too far. They also point out that saliva is thicker than the artificial material used in studies, and because arrestees in hoods may bleed or vomit, it makes breathing much tougher than studies imply.

Death Connected to the Use of Hoods

Over the course of ten years, more than thirty in-custody deaths occurred involving individuals who were wearing spit hoods. The hoods were used along with tactical moves or weapons, including stun guns, pepper spray, and hogties, aggravating breathing and heart issues. These facts bring to light the seriousness of decisions made by law enforcement as they arrest and restrain Americans every day. Continue reading

It is a decision that must be weighed very carefully: should you testify in your own defense? About half of all defendants decide to take the stand to proclaim their innocence. Defendants with prior felony convictions are less likely to testify, often concerned that juries will discover they have had past problems with the law. Likewise, those accused of charges related to gang activity seem to believe juries will be biased against them and are usually reluctant to take the stand. What about you? Will you be able to make the case for yourself that no one else could? 

Possible Benefits

Every defendant has the right to testify.  Some reasons it may be a good idea include:

  • The obvious plus side of testifying in your own defense is that you get to set the narrative. You can directly challenge the testimony of other witnesses, clarify misunderstandings, and demonstrate your innocence by directly confronting the charges against you.
  • If you present as a sincere and credible person, the jury will have the opportunity to see you as a human being deserving of fair consideration and empathy.
  • The jury will be instructed not to infer guilt if you choose not to testify.  Even so, the fact that you are willing to testify demonstrates your confidence in yourself, taking away juror questions about what you may be hiding by refusing to take the stand.

Potential Risks

Although it is your right to defend yourself by taking the stand, doing so is not without potential pitfalls:

  • Prosecutors will take the opportunity to aggressively question you in the hopes of unnerving you, discrediting you, and generally undermining you.
  • While you may have a clear understanding of your own perspective, you likely do not understand the legal nuances related to the case.
  • Anything you say can be used by the prosecution to weaken your case. They will set traps, hoping you open the door to further inquiries along new lines. They can also call additional rebuttal witnesses to contradict your version of events.

If You Do Testify

If testifying is definitely something you want to pursue, keep these tips in mind:

  • Understand the allegations and thoroughly prepare your testimony, with plenty of rehearsal.
  • Be calm, respectful, and attentive.
  • Particularly during cross-examination, maintain eye contact, and answer only as much as you are asked.
  • If questions are misleading or unclear, rephrase them to get the information out that you want out.
  • Maintain positive body language.

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The federal Witness Protection Program is operated by U.S. Marshals, with the goal of providing new identities to individuals who face the possibility of vengeance from organized crime groups like the Mafia, for example, when testifying against them. Groups like these who terrorize communities or are otherwise involved in violent crimes may be a real threat to witnesses. The government understands that government cooperation can be a serious safety concern for witnesses and their families and has been tasked with protecting them since 1971 as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.  Since that time, almost 20,000 people have been hidden and protected by the Marshalls, and the feds are proud to say that no person in the program who has adhered to the guidelines has ever been injured or killed by an adversary.  Even so, entry into the program is factually a mammoth disruption to life. What do you need to know about it? 

What to Know About Witness Protection

Some little-known facts about witness protection should be considered before agreeing to placement in the program:

  • The U.S. Attorney, the U.S. Marshals, and the Department of Enforcement Operations Eligibility must successfully vet and sponsor anyone entering Witness Protection.
  • Mental and physical testing is required of individuals prior to entering the program.
  • Appropriate jobs in the new location are determined through extensive skills testing.
  • New surnames are provided, although first names may remain the same.
  • Documentation, including new social security numbers, birth certificates, and driver’s licenses that support new identities, is provided.
  • The school records for minor children will be amended.
  • Although plastic surgery was offered prior to 1990, it is no longer part of the program.
  • Witnesses are provided with financial assistance for about six months in order to have time to develop self-sufficiency.
  • Furnished homes in neighborhoods with schools and churches will be provided.
  • After witnesses are asked where they would like to go, they are sent anywhere else so that no one can anticipate the move, although an effort is made to place them in an area in which they would be comfortable.
  • Witnesses may make phone calls to loved ones left behind on a secure line and are allowed to write letters through a secure system (although letters must be destroyed after being read).
  • Witnesses generally are contacted by the Marshals about once per year to make sure things are going satisfactorily.
  • Even if they get married later, people in the program can NEVER reveal their history.
  • When they leave, witnesses are not allowed to tell people where they are going. They must simply just disappear from their lives.
  • About 90% of witnesses in the program have a history of criminal activity themselves.

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We hear about the right to a speedy trial—a constitutional guarantee provided by the Sixth Amendment. Nevertheless, we hear about people who are behind bars awaiting trial all the time, which makes one wonder, what does the term “speedy” really mean in this context? And why are nearly 45,000 people sitting in county jails across California even though they have never been convicted or sentenced? Moreover, why have over 1,000 been rotting in jail for over three years, and why have another 332 been there for over five years? 

Speedy is Debatable

There is no actual definition of “speedy” in the Constitution, so scholars have landed on the term “reasonable” to describe the length of time someone must wait for a trial to occur.  Unfortunately, that word is no more definitive than the word we were originally trying to understand! We can look at legal precedent and see that the U. S. Supreme Court defined a speedy trial as essentially a balancing act where the conduct of both the prosecution and the defendant are contemplated. If that makes the definition sufficiently muddy, perhaps the four items to be considered will help:

  • The length of a delay;
  • Reasons for a delay;
  • Prejudice to a defendant;
  • Whether the defendant requested a speedy trial.

Still feeling a bit confused? Thankfully, the Speedy Trial Act puts some meat on the bone.  In general, a suspect must be charged with a federal crime within 30 days of a summons or arrest. Assuming the person pleads not guilty, a trial must be scheduled for no more than 70 days beyond that date or the date the person appears in court. Local statutes differ by state, but have similar deadlines.  Here in California, Penal Code 1382 PC has the following time limits:

  • Within 15 days of arrest formal charges must be filed;
  • Trials must occur within 45 days of arraignment for misdemeanors and infractions;
  • Felonies must go to trial within 60 days of arraignment.

Why Doesn’t This Always Occur According to Time Constraints?

Under certain circumstances, these rules may be modified, which can occur if either party asks the court for a continuance. For instance, the defendant may wish to waive their right to a speedy trial if they need more time to bolster their defense. There may be other reasons to delay the trial, including: 

  • If the case is extremely complicated and more time is needed;
  • If new evidence changes the route a prosecutor or defense attorney may wish to engage;
  • If the court calendar is too full to handle the cases in a speedy fashion;
  • If the defendant becomes ill or otherwise incapacitated and unable to attend trial;
  • If a natural disaster or other incident (like the pandemic) makes trying the case on time impossible.

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