OC Judge Vacates DUI Sentence After Victim Seeks Harsher Sentence

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

In January of this year, a man by the name of Jorge Perez was driving under the influence of alcohol when he struck 20-year-old Cal State Fullerton student Jessica Weber as she was walking with her friends back to the dorms.

Perez drove through a red light and hit Weber with his left-side mirror. Perez then drove away before law enforcement arrived at the scene. Witnesses helped police track down Perez where he was later arrested. Meanwhile, Weber was left with broken bones in her back, hip, pelvis, and left arm.

Bonnie Masters-Weber, Jessica’s mother, had told the Orange County Deputy District Attorney who was assigned to the case that she wanted to be present for every hearing. Masters-Weber, who lives in Sacramento, was told by the prosecutor that there was no need for her to make the long trip for every hearing, but that they would inform her of when sentencing would take place.

Under the California Victim’s Bill or Rights Act of 2008, commonly known as Marcy’s Law, victims of crimes and their families have the right to be present during the criminal proceedings of the defendant and give a statement at the defendant’s sentencing.

According to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the prosecutor on the case “inadvertently failed to notify” Masters-Weber that Perez had accepted a two-year deal with the judge.

Unbeknownst to Masters-Weber, Perez was sentenced in October. Although the DA had been pushing for four years and four months in prison, Perez accepted an offer from the judge of two years in prison.

When the failure to notify the Weber family was discovered, prosecutors filed a motion for reconsideration of Perez’s sentence and Judge Scott Steiner ordered a hearing.

“The DA failed us,” said Masters-Weber at the hearing which took place last month. “It refused to acknowledge their violation of our constitutional rights.”

Judge Steiner agreed that the Weber and her family’s rights were violated and vacated Perez’s guilty plea.

“I am making the determination that it is proper in the interest of justice to vacate the guilty plea that was entered in this case,” ruled Judge Steiner.

Perez’s attorney disagreed with the ruling arguing that the court had considered letters of impact before it offered the two-year sentence to Perez.

With the guilty plea vacated, Perez’s initial not guilty plea effectively gets reinstated and Perez’s defense can continue to fight for a better offer or take the case to trial. Given the statements provided by Weber and her family, Judge Steiner told Perez’s defense that the new court offer would be four years and four months, the same as what the DA’s office had pushed for originally.

Susan Schroeder, the Orange County District Attorney’s chief of staff issued the following statement:

"The Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) is a leading enforcer of Marsy’s Law rights and takes its advocacy for crime victims seriously. In the case of People V. Jorge Perez, the OCDA was vigorously pursuing a sentence of 4 years and 4 months on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, driving with blood alcohol .08% or more causing bodily injury, hit and run with injury, driving on a suspended/revoked license, and a sentencing enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury."

"Early on in the case, the victim’s mother, Ms. Masters, had been working with a deputy district attorney, who is no longer with the office, who suggested she not make the long drive from northern California for each and every proceeding and that our office would notify her prior to the sentencing. A note was made in the file to contact her when the time came. The judge offered the defendant a two-year sentence, an offer that was not supported by the OCDA. The OCDA gave Ms. Masters’ prepared victim impact statement to the judge who considered it at the sentencing hearing on October 17, but inadvertently failed to notify Ms. Masters to be present."

"Once the error was discovered and prior to being contacted by the media, the OCDA initiated the process of getting the case put back on the calendar to remedy the situation so Ms. Masters may address the court personally. OCDA prosecutors strive for perfection and in this case, we fell short. We certainly understand why Ms. Masters is upset and we are working to correct our error."

In no way do I condone what Perez did and I want to be perfectly clear when say that Weber and her family should have had the opportunity to address the court. While it may be difficult for some to sympathize with, I’d be remiss if I did not point out another less-obvious inequity:

The prosecution fouls up and, as a result, gets exactly what they originally wanted; a more severe sentence.

Perez is due back in court later this month for a pretrial hearing.

 

 

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Wet Reckless vs. California DUI: What are the Differences?

Friday, November 17th, 2017

People who have been charged with a California DUI always ask whether it’s possible to get the case reduced to a wet reckless. They often ask this question without even knowing what the difference is between a DUI and a wet reckless, except that it’s a reduced charge. While it’s true that it is a reduction to a DUI charge, there are a number of other differences.

The wet reckless if the first of several reductions that are sometimes offered in lieu of a DUI. The wet reckless is usually offered when the flaws in the prosecution’s case are relatively small. For example, the wet reckless is often offered when the chemical breath or blood test shows that the driver’s blood alcohol content is at a 0.08 percent or close. Further reductions may be offered when there is no chemical test and/or there is little evidence that the driver was “under the influence. Rather than risk losing at a trial, the prosecutor may offer a wet reckless or another reduction merely to secure a conviction.

If, however, the problems in the prosecution’s case are more than minor, the prosecutor may offer to reduce the DUI charge to a “dry reckless” or an “exhibition of speed.” Discussions on these, I’ll save for another day.

Unlike these other charges, the wet reckless can only be offered as a reduction. In other words, a prosecutor cannot file a criminal complaint with a wet reckless listed as a charge.

If the wet reckless is offered as a reduction and a DUI defendant accepts the reduction, they’ll  be pleading guilty or no contest to California Vehicle Code section 23103 pursuant to 23105.5 which reads, “A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving…If the prosecution agrees to a plea of guilty or nolo contendere to a charge of [reckless driving] in satisfaction of, or as a substitute for, an original charge of a violation of [DUI], the prosecution shall state for the record a factual basis for the satisfaction or substitution, including whether or not there had been consumption of an alcoholic beverage or ingestion or administration of a drug, or both, by the defendant in connection with the offense. The statement shall set forth the facts that show whether or not there was a consumption of an alcohol beverage or the ingestion or administration of a drug by the defendant in connection with the offense.”

Simply put, a defendant who is convicted of a wet reckless is deemed to be guilty of reckless driving involving alcohol.

Now that we’ve clarified exactly what a wet reckless is, let’s talk about the benefits of it.

Well, first off, it’s not a DUI. There is an obvious stigma attached to a DUI conviction and a wet reckless simply isn’t a DUI.

Another benefit to a wet reckless reduction is that there are no mandatory sentencing enhancements. In other words, if a person is convicted for a second-time DUI within 10 years, they face a minimum of 96 hours in jail. If a person is convicted for a third DUI within 10 years, they face a minimum of 120 days in jail. However, when a person is convicted of a wet reckless when they’ve suffered prior DUI convictions within a 10 year period, there is no mandatory minimum jail sentence. If however a person suffers a DUI conviction within 10 years of a wet reckless conviction, the wet reckless will be used to increase the sentencing enhancements of the current DUI and subsequent DUI convictions.

Other possible advantages of the wet reckless include a shorter probationary period, lower fines and fees, and a shorter DUI program. I say possible because it depends on what the prosecutor offers as a sentence to the wet reckless reduction.

The last advantage to a wet reckless conviction is that it does not trigger a 6 month driver’s license suspension with the DMV. It should be noted, however, that a license may still be suspended through the DMV’s admin per se suspension which occurs if a person does not request a DMV hearing within 10 days of their DUI arrest or they lose their DMV hearing. Therefore, the only way to completely avoid any license suspension following a DUI arrest is to request the DMV hearing within 10 days of the arrest, win the DMV hearing, then get the DUI charge reduced to a wet reckless.

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Prosecutors Decline to Prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman for DUI

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

This story is disturbing to me not just because it occurred in my hometown of Long Beach, but because it exemplifies the partiality with which prosecutors and police treat DUI’s of those whom they have a working relationship with versus everyday citizens.

Prosecutors have decided not to prosecute Long Beach Councilwoman, Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence nor driving under the influence in a June 3rd incident involving her former chief of staff, Devin Cotter.

District attorney declines to charge Long Beach Councilwoman with drunk driving, domestic violence

October 26, 2017, Los Angeles Times – Prosecutors have decided not to charge Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence or driving under the influence in connection with a June clash with her former chief of staff.

But a district attorney’s memo detailing the decision also raises questions about the Long Beach Police Department’s response to the June 3 incident involving the councilwoman and Devin Cotter.

In its initial statement, the Police Department said it received a call for assistance from the California Highway Patrol about a possible drunk driving incident on the shoulder of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach at 2:40 a.m.

The city’s officers smelled alcohol on Pearce, who admitted to drinking that night, according to the district attorney’s memo. A field sobriety test conducted about 4 a.m. showed she was mildly impaired.

But the memo said a test of the councilwoman’s blood alcohol level was not conducted until 4:20 a.m., nearly two hours after the CHP called. At that point, the test showed Pearce had a blood alcohol level of 0.06%, under the legal limit of 0.08%, the memo said.

The testing device used on Pearce was unreliable, the prosecutor’s memo said. A department toxicologist had recommended it not be used a month before the incident. Additional tests were not performed, according to the district attorney’s memo.

A police spokesman said in a statement that officers initially investigated whether domestic violence had occurred when they arrived, interviewing Cotter and Pearce before realizing that the councilwoman had been drinking. At that point, the officers called for a colleague who is a certified drug recognition expert to investigate, Sgt. Brad Johnson said in the statement.

He said the testing device had been “tagged to be replaced but was not removed from its storage cabinet. The officer who retrieved the device did not realize … and unfortunately used it during the DUI investigation.”

Police at the scene saw Cotter with swelling, redness and a cut to his head and cuts to his hand, according to the district attorney’s memo. Pearce at one point had shoved Cotter, causing him to fall to the ground, the memo said.

Prosecutors ultimately decided that Pearce, who was first elected to the City Council in 2016, could argue she was defending herself when she shoved Cotter.

Pearce said she could not immediately comment. Cotter could not be reached for comment.

 

I can tell you that, had this been an average Joe Schmoe driver, it would not have ended up in a refusal to file DUI or domestic violence charges.

Many DUI cases are filed everyday where the blood alcohol content is below the legal limit or a breathalyzer is faulty. While it may have been true that Pearce was under the limit at the time of the test and that the breathalyzer was inaccurate, had it been a regular member of the public, charges for driving under the influence would still have been filed and prosecutors would have left it to the defendant their attorney to dispute the results.

The same thing can likely be said for the refusal to file domestic violence charges. If prosecutors declined to prosecute domestic violence charges when anybody “could argue [they were] defending [themselves],” then they’d never prosecute anyone. And believe me, in the many domestic violence cases I’ve handled, not once has a prosecutor dropped a case because a person “could argue that they were defending themselves.”

So now let me ask you: Is this a coincidence?

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Breath or Blood Test After a California DUI Stop?

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Let’s imagine a common DUI scenario.

A person is stopped on suspicion of a California DUI. The person stopped has read my many posts telling readers that the field sobriety tests are optional and should not be submitted to. So they politely decline the field sobriety tests. Then the officer requests an on-scene breathalyzer known as the “preliminary alcohol screening” test or PAS test. In addition to my posts reminding readers that this too is option, the officer also informs the driver that the PAS test is optional. So this too is politely declined by the driver. Lastly, the officer advises the driver that they are under arrest on suspicion of a California DUI and that, by law, they must submit to a chemical test which can either be a breath or a blood test.

Which test should the driver choose? Breath or blood?

The DUI blood test is much more accurate than the DUI breath test. The blood test is far less likely than a DUI breath test to produce a false reading. Another benefit of a DUI blood test is that the law requires that a sample of the blood is saved for future testing by the DUI suspect’s defense attorney. The defense attorney can have the sample tested by its own blood analyst to contradict the results of the prosecutor’s analyst. This is called a “blood split” and it is commonly used in DUI defense.

The blood test, however, is not infallible. See my previous post:

The Dirty Skin Defense

Since the blood test is more accurate, if a person knows that they have not had much to drink and they are fairly certain that they are under the legal limit of 0.08 percent, then a blood test might be the better option. On the other hand, the blood test might not be the best for someone who is clearly over the legal limit because it will be more difficult to dispute the test results.

 Unlike the blood test, the breath test is rather unreliable. Breath tests can provide false readings for several reasons. See Lawrence Taylor’s post:

Are Breathalyzers Accurate?

Although California DUI attorneys cannot dispute the reliability of breathalyzers as a whole during a DUI trial, they can provide evidence that the particular breathalyzer used in an individual case was inaccurate.

Unlike the blood test, the breath test may be a better option for someone who knows they are likely over the legal limit because it will be easier for a California DUI attorney to refute the results. However, many people who are actually under the legal limit may still test over the legal limit because of the same inaccuracies.

Simply put, if you are fairly confident that your blood alcohol content will below the legal limit of 0.08 percent, you’re probably better off opting for the blood test because it will accurately show that you were, in fact, under the legal limit. However, if you think there is a chance that you could be above the legal limit, you might be better off opting for a breath test so that your attorney can challenge the results if you test above the legal limit.

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DUI in a Driverless Car

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Driverless cars are so close to becoming a reality that just this past week, California published new draft rules that provide a clearer picture of how the driverless car industry will be regulated in the state.

Amongst the many proposed regulations that were drafted, which can be found on California’s DMV website here, is that driverless cars must comply with state and local driving laws.  Companies which sell the driverless vehicles to customers must make software updates available to comply with changes in traffic laws.

While the proposed regulations apply primarily to the manufacturers of the driverless vehicles and not necessarily on the owner of the driverless vehicle, it remains unclear how driverless cars will affect another state law that does apply to the owner and, dare I say it, driver of the driverless vehicle; the California DUI.  

As is, the California Vehicle Code’s DUI law makes it “unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage…[or] who has 0.08 percent or more…of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.”

If driverless cars take to the streets of California in the next year, or possibly even months, the question becomes whether the word “drive” under California’s DUI law still applies. In other words, can a person still be charged, arrested, and convicted of a California DUI while using a driverless car?

At least one country says no.

Australia’s National Transport Comission (NTC) has released a report suggesting that applying drunk driving laws to driverless cars could discourage the use of driverless cars in general and when trying to get home safely after drinking:

Driving Drunk or on Drugs in a Driverless Car Should Be Legal, Expert Body Says

October 6, 2017, CNBC – People under the influence of drugs and alcohol should be able to use driverless cars without falling foul of the law, a regulatory body in Australia has suggested.

The National Transport Commission (NTC), an independent advisory body, said current laws could reduce the uptake of automated vehicles. One of those potential barriers could be any law that requires occupants of self-driving cars to comply with drink-driving laws.

"This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking. Enabling people to use an automated vehicle to drive them home despite having consumed alcohol has the potential to improve road safety outcomes by reducing the incidence of drink-driving," the NTC said in a discussion paper released earlier this week.

"Legislative amendments could be made to exempt people who set a vehicle with high or full automation in motion from the drink- and drug-driving provisions."

The NTC does acknowledge a risk that could involve a person under the influence of drink or drugs choosing to take over the car. If that occurred, the body suggests that drink and drug driving offences would apply. But ultimately, a drunk person in a driverless car is similar to them being in a taxi, the NTC concludes.

"The application of an exemption is clear-cut for dedicated automated vehicles, which are not designed for a human driver. The occupants will always be passengers. The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go," the paper said.

In many countries drugs are illegal and drink-driving laws differ between jurisdictions.

Australia has been pushing forward legislation to facilitate driverless cars over the past two years. In 2015, the first public self-driving car trials took place in South Australia, after laws were passed there to allow tests.

The NTC also recently released guidelines on driverless car tests across the entire country.

Analysts have forecast that automated vehicles could actually be a boon for the alcohol industry.

"Shared and autonomous vehicles could expand the total addressable market of alcoholic beverages while reducing the incidence of traffic fatalities and accidents," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas saidin a report last month.

Governments across the world are looking into the implications that driverless cars will have on the law and the insurance industry.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Anything that helps prevent drunk driving, I’m in favor of. If a driverless car can get people home safely after a night of drinking, then why wouldn’t we use them? But to apply DUI laws to those using driverless cars defeats the purpose of DUI laws in the first place, namely to punish and deter drunk driving. In fact, it may actually discourage people from choosing this new method from traveling, as the NTC’s report suggests.

 

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