Articles Tagged with San Diego criminal defense attorney

This September, the notoriously liberal state of California just made it harder for cops to take cash from innocent people. Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law SB 443, which limits the amount of civil forfeiture that is allowed to take place in the state by police and law enforcement agencies.

Civil asset forfeiture occurs when the government (ie. police) literally seizes someone’s property, without compensating them, based on the suspicion that the property was used in connection with criminal activity. For example, you can be stopped during a routine traffic stop, and police who suspect you of drug dealing may take cash that was in your car based on that premise. They do not need a warrant or criminal conviction in order to do so.

It is well known that corrupt police agencies throughout California have been using civil asset forfeiture as an excuse to pad their budgets. An investigation by the Washington Post identified almost $10,000 in cash seizures that took place without any warrants or indictments.

The Lay of the Land

Compared to other states, California  was already more protective than others.  The state already required a criminal conviction before real estate, vehicles, boats and cash under  the value of $25,000 could be forfeited over to the government.  The standard of proof in the civil forfeiture proceeding has always been “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning the state had to establish clear and convincing evidence that the property was connected to illegal activity.

However, California’s state requirements are different from those under federal law.  Under a federal forfeiture, state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies may collaborate (called “equitable sharing”) and forfeit seized property under federal law, even if that would preempt California’s more stringent protections for property owners. This means that traditionally, federal agency such as ICE or the DEA just has to get involved in order for the forfeiture to become federal. Once state departments transfer the seized assets to a federal agencies, they get back 80% of those proceeds.

SB 443 changed that. Starting in 2017, police will first need to obtain any criminal conviction before they could receive equitable-sharing payments from forfeited real estate, vehicles, boats, and cash worth under $40,000. This is intended to prohibit police departments from sidestepping the state conviction requirements by transferring the money to federal agencies. In addition, the law also increased the threshold for forfeiting  cash with criminal conviction to $40,000. Continue reading

There are currently more than 800,000 people registered in the nationwide list of registered sex criminals, and that list is growing dramatically. Even some who had denounced convicted rapist Brock Turner’s actions had questioned whether he should have to spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.

In states like California, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama it is impossible for people convicted of any sex crime to be removed from the online registries showing their pictures, addresses, convictions, and probation details. Critics have stated that an ex-offender will struggle with getting a job and place to live for the rest of his or her life. Advocates for sex crime victims insist that lifetime registries make the public safer by preventing offender recidivism and giving citizens and police access to information on the whereabouts of sex offenders and precluding them from places like schools.

Brock was released on September 2 after serving only half his jail sentence (three months) for good behavior. Brock moved back to his parent’s house in Bellbrook, Ohio. It is reported that protesters demonstrated in front of the home before and after his arrival and Turner’s parents reported to police eggs being thrown at the house.

It has already been reported several times that Prop 47 may be affecting crime rates in the state, but the state’s most damning evidence was just recently released. According to the state’s attorney general’s most recent report, the number of violent crimes jumped 10% across California last year, reversing several years of declines.

According to Attorney General Kamala Harris, homicides have increased by 10%, while robberies and aggravated assaults were up more than 8% from 2014 to 2015. Aggravated assaults with a firearm were even higher, with a reported jump of 15.7%.  It was also reported that property crimes such as burglary and car theft have increased by 8%.

Harris, who is currently running for the U.S. Senate in anticipation of Boxer’s upcoming retirement, did not comment on the causes of these crime spikes. Many factors could be to blame, ranging from unemployment rates to the police departments being short staffed.

Recently, prosecutors in Oakland, California announced they opened up a criminal investigation into the fatal balcony collapse that occurred on June 17 near the UC Berkeley campus.  Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley launched an investigation into the incident that killed 6 college students at an apartment party when police announced they would not look into the deaths. Specifically, the construction company responsible for the balcony’s construction (Segue Construction) now faces criminal negligence and manslaughter charges.  City officials have confirmed that the balcony was severely rotted by exposure to moisture, when it completely broke off the side of the apartment building, sending about 20 people down a dangerous fall.  The company has already settled two lawsuits involving balconies with dry rot at two apartment buildings in California.

You can be charged with Manslaughter through Criminal Negligence

Manslaughter (aka involuntary manslaughter) is defined as the killing another human being without premeditation, malice, or planning.  It is unintentional, unlike murder and homicide.  It is a felony under California Penal Code 192(b), punishable by a maximum of 4 years in jail and a fine up to $10,000.

Manslaughter typically comes up in the driving context, when someone unintentionally hits and kills someone with their car, for example.  This Berkeley tragedy shines a light on the fact that manslaughter charges actually come up in all kinds of contexts, such as negligent construction.  Moreover, the charge typically comes in partnership with other charges (ie. the California weapons law), or as a subpart of another greater charge, such as criminal negligence.  Here, the prosecutors will need to show that criminal negligence was involved in the collapse in order to file charges and gain convictions.  This is because manslaughter can be an example of criminal negligence, depending on the circumstances.

To be convicted of criminal negligence (aka gross negligence) in California, the prosecutor must prove that:

  • The defendant acted so recklessly s/he created a high risk of death or great bodily injury;
  • The defendant demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life; and
  • A reasonable person in a similar situation would not have acted that way.

While criminal negligence substitutes for criminal intent, it is limited in its application, and only extends to crimes based on accidental-type scenarios where you should have been aware of the dangers.  Thus, if you acted so unreasonably in such a manner that killed or severely injured someone, you may be convicted of involuntary manslaughter through criminal negligence.

Legal Defenses

Mere mistakes and accidents are not criminal negligence.  It requires more than just a mistake in judgement. To defend against a scenario where you face both criminal negligence and manslaughter charges, you must show that you had no reason to believe your actions were unreasonable or reckless.

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The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has announced it will seek the death penalty against a mother (Pearl Fernandez) and her boyfriend (Isauro Aguirre), who have been accused of the torturing and death of the woman’s 8-year-old son.  This case stems from Gabriel Fernandez’s death in May 2013, where Fernandez and Aguirre were indicted by a grand jury on a charge of murder and a special circumstance of torture.

Grand jury testimony revealed that Pearl Fernandez had called 911 after she and Aguirre allegedly beat Gabriel for not picking up his toys. After the beating, the boy went silent and stopped responding.  Paramedics discovered that he had a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin.

The Recent U.S. Supreme Court Ruling’s Effect on California Death Row Practices

The CA prosecutor’s announcement coincidentally coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that upheld as constitutional the use of the drug midazolam for lethal injection in the state of Oklahoma.  See Glossip v. Gross (June 29, 2015).  Specifically, the Supreme Court has rejected inmates’ argument that using such a drug violates one’s right to a humane execution.  This ruling has shifted the spotlight the capital punishment debate back to California’s dysfunctional death row.  California has the largest death row backlog in the nation; 757 prisoners were awaiting their deaths (most convicted of murder) when executions were suspended in the state in 2006.

In 2006, District Judge Jeremy Fogel halted California executions after determining that the delays in the system were unconstitutional.  Prisoners used to be executed with a 3-drug cocktail, but lawsuits arose over the excessive pain that cocktail caused.  Since then, the state of California has failed to adopt new drug regulations, so families and victims of death row inmates sued the state last November.  Under that lawsuit’s settlement with families of murder victims, California prison officials agreed to propose a new single-drug execution method within 120 days of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Oklahoma legal challenge.  With the ruling in hand, that deadline is now Oct. 27.  The state has not executed an inmate in nearly a decade.

Now, the state of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must find a new drug to use, reactivate the system, and address the financial costs of such an expensive system.  California’s death row has cost $4 billion since its inception, with $100 million per year being paid for by taxpayers.

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As a practitioner in the criminal law field, it is part of my job to keep updated on new case law that will affect my clients.  This blog will seek to explain to you the latest development in criminal case law—coming from our highest court—the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court has had no shortage of criminal law cases.  This year for example, they have already ruled in Rodrigo v. U.S. that police cannot stop motorists longer than necessary at traffic stops. And recently, in Johnson v. U.S., it ruled that catch-all phrase in the Armed Career Criminal Act defining what crimes make a defendant eligible for a longer prison term was “too vague.”

In this case, Samuel Johnson plead guilty to a federal weapons charge in 2012 (firearms possession).  He was sentenced to 15 years in prison—5 more than he would have gotten because he had prior convictions.  The Armed Career Criminal Act, which is a federal law that has jurisdiction over all states, has a clause that treats past convictions as violent felonies, even if no violence occurred.  If an offender has 3 prior convictions, the fourth automatically generates a 15-year prison sentence.

The Act lists burglary, arson, extortion, and use of explosives as specific categories or prior crimes that can lengthen one’s sentence.  The Supreme Court, in a 6 to 3 majority, held that specific clause of the law unconstitutional.

How Does This Ruling Affect Me?

One of the reasons Armed Career Criminal Act clause was held unconstitutional was because different states may have different laws on prior offenses.  Courts across the country have differed on what crime should be included in sentence lengthening, leading to inconsistent results.  Faced with such uncertainty, defendants often take prosecutors’ plea deals rather than risk the federal statute’s 15-year sentence.

Thanks to this ruling, if you have prior federal convictions (depending on what they are), they will no longer make you eligible for a longer, 15-year sentence.  However, it should still be noted that California has a very tough “3 strikes” law that has a long list of crimes that will make you eligible for life in prison if you are convicted 3 times of certain violent crimes.  In that respect, our state’s 3 strikes law is much tougher than the Armed Career Criminal Act.  It applies to state charges instead of federal charges.

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As Baltimore becomes the latest casualty of events transpiring from police brutality, another Justice Department investigation is underway for the multitude of constitutional rights Freddie Gray may have suffered at the hands of police.  Most people don’t think of criminal law as being fundamentally intertwined with our basic constitutional rights, or even as a ‘subsect’ of constitutional law.  The purpose of this post is to break down which fundamental constitutional rights have significant implications for the rights of criminal defendants.

The Constitution

Most of the constitutional principles cited by criminal defense attorneys come from the first 10 amendments in the Constitution (aka the Bill of rights).  Because the Constitution only applies to government actors, only those acting on behalf of the government (ie. police) can be liable for violating constitutional rights.

  • The 1st Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, speech, press, the right to peaceably assemble (ie. protest) or the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.  This amendment has made its way into the spotlight again because more and more people are being arrested for civil disobedience, filming police, or participating in protests- all protected 1st Amendment activities.  Violations of 1st Amendment give a right of action to sue the state actor for civil damages.
  • The 4th Amendment prohibits “unreasonable search and seizures” and “government intrusion into their persons,” whether through police stops of citizens on the street, arrests, or searches of cars during traffic stops.  The right applies any time you are stopped, pulled over, arrested, detained, or in the safety of your home.  Evidence seized in violation of the 4th Amendment is unlawful, and cannot be used against you in court.
  • The 5th Amendment protects you against self-incrimination, which is where the Miranda right, or right to remain silent stems from.  This means that whenever you are taken into custody, you do not have to say anything to the police, and can ask for a lawyer.  Voluntary statements are statements that will be used against you, so it is best to not say anything.  Statements that have been taken in violation of the 5th Amendment (ie. a coerced confession) are also inadmissible against you in court. The 5th Amendment also protects you from “double jeopardy,” meaning you may not be put on trial more than once for the same offense.
  • The 6th Amendment gives you multiple rights: the right to confront a witness (meaning you may confront the person accusing you of a crime), the right to be notified of the charges against you, the right to a public trial in a criminal case, the right to be evaluated by a jury of your peers, and the right to a ‘speedy’ trial.  However, it does not specify exact time limits.  Thus, judges decide on a case-by-case basis whether a defendant’s trial has been so delayed that the case should be thrown out.  The 6th Amendment also gives you one of the most famous rights: the right to be issued an attorney in a criminal trial, if you cannot afford one.
  • The 14th Amendment prohibits states from violating an individual’s rights of due process and equal protection.  This means that legal proceedings must be fair, following the formal processes, and that defendants are not treated differently based on race, gender, or religion.  This is the most heavily litigated portion of criminal law, as racial profiling has been shown to be rampant amongst most police forces, including San Diego.

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The State of Washington was the first state in the nation to pass the ‘no-nonsense’ 3 strikes policy to address repeat, criminal offenders in 1993.  California enacted its 3 strikes law shortly after Washington in 1994.  These “habitual offender laws” are statutes adopted by individual state legislatures to impose harsher sentences on those who have committed three or more felonies.  In most states including California, this means a life sentence without the possibility of parole on the 3rd strike.

Since 1993, 28 states have passed that same policy (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin), with Massachusetts being the latest state to adopt a 3 strikes law in 2012.

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On Tuesday, April 21, the U.S. Marshals Service announced they would be reviewing a video that shows a deputy U.S. Marshall in South Gate, California charging at a woman who was filming them at a crime scene, grabbing her phone, smashing it onto the curb, and then subsequently kicking her belongings (you can view the 53-second video here).  Unbeknownst to the U.S. Marshals, someone else was quietly filming the woman doing the filming, and posted their video capturing the incident online. While the caption originally tagged the South Gate Police Department, it has been confirmed that the ‘officers’ involved in the video were U.S. Marshals, and the incident is now being “investigated.”  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Beatriz Paez, 34, said she feared for her life during the confrontation.  According to her attorney, the phone’s screen is shattered and doesn’t work, but they will be trying to recover Paez’s video from the phone’s chip.

Constitutional Violations

I have blogged about the constitutionality and the right to record police before, but today, I am going to discuss the potential civil rights violations that may have occurred in the aforementioned incident to further drive in my point that those exercising their constitutional rights are not doing anything illegal or wrong.  By now, it should be obvious to most of you that constitutional law and criminal law are inter related, and have huge implications for those who have been subject to criminal charges and/or actions by police.  Because of 1st amendment protections of free speech and 4th amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and undue force, there should be no situation where an officer can intentionally grab and destroy a camera being used to lawfully record law enforcement in a public place, especially when the filmer was not impeding on police activities.

In California, like every state, it is illegal to possess, distribute, and transport illegal substances that are listed on the Controlled Substances Schedule. These substances include heroin, marijuana, peyote, hash, cocaine, methamphetamine, “magic mushrooms,” and prescription drugs such as Oxycontin (aka “oxy”), Vicodin (Hydrocodone), and stimulants.

All drug possession crimes in California are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, “wobblers” (meaning they can be a misdemeanor or felony), or felonies.  There are 4 types of charges:

  • Simple possession;
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