Yolo County Man Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison for Two Bad Checks

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courtroom.jpgA Yolo County man, down on his luck, was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison for writing two bad checks to Nugget Market in 2007.  He had been facing 30 years to life as part of a three strikes, but that was reduced in final sentencing given the nature of his crimes.

On June 16, 2007 and again three days later, James Davis, a 46-year-old wrote two checks to Nugget Market that were returned for insufficient funds.  Mr. Davis says in his declaration that he was down on his luck and trying to buy food and necessities for his family.

“The two checks written to Nugget Market were written for food and necessities for my family,” Mr. Davis wrote.  “I continue to struggle with a lack of job opportunities, both because I am a laborer with spine injuries and because I suffered felony convictions with jail and prison sentences at a young age. However, I have tried to do the best I can and continue to do what I can to take care of my family. My family always comes first even, like now, when I must take the consequences for my actions.”

As Mr. Davis’ attorney, Lisa Lance from the Yolo County Public Defender’s office explained in a motion, the combined total of two checks was $215.94.  According to the law, a bounced check for $200 constitutes a felony. 

“Neither check was close to the $200 required to make this felony conduct, so the district attorney combined the two incidents, making the total $215.94; $15.94 cents over what would have remained misdemeanor conduct even combined,” Ms. Lance wrote.

Worse yet, after the preliminary hearing, the DA’s office piled on two second degree burglary charges, arguing that there was an element of intent – in other words, he knew that these were bad checks when he wrote it.  Though, Ms. Lance called that element, “nominally supported” and “circumstantial at best.”

Never the less, Mr. Davis faced trial for 3 felonies, 3 prison priors and two strikes “for writing two insufficient funds checks, neither any where close to felony conduct by itself.”

According to a press release from the DA’s office talking about the Yolo County District Attorney Check Prosecution Program which they claim helped recover a sum of $27 thousand for Yolo County merchants and residents during the month of June 2010 alone, “It is not uncommon for check writers to “bounce” checks to businesses or individuals.”

The DA’s office explained in general, these checks are written on checking accounts that either lack sufficient funds or are closed.  Generally businesses attempt to collect these unpaid bills themselves, as it is better for business not to arrest their customers if they do not need to.  However, the DA’s office notes, that if businesses or individuals in Yolo County are unable to get cooperation from the check writers, at that point they can contact the DA Check Program and the DA’s office will investigate such claims.

To make matters worse, Mr. Davis compounded his problems when he failed to appear in court on November 3, 2008 to be taken into custody on a plea agreement that would have had him in prison for about 3 and a half years, still a rather steep penalty given the crime.

Wrote his attorney, “Mr. Davis indicates in his attached declaration that he did not appear on November 3,2008 because he was afraid, and wanted to make sure his wife and four children had some money saved up for their needs while he is in prison, at least until his wife graduates from phlebotomy school and is able to get a job.”

James Davis wrote in his declaration in which he fully admits to his crimes, “I did not appear on November 3,2008, nor for my probation interview because I knew I was going to prison for a long time and I was afraid for my family in that they would be in even more dire need when I am gone.”

During his time between November 3, 2008 when he was supposed to turn himself in and August 4, 2009, he writes, “I worked at In Home care in order to build up some money for my family to use while I am in prison.”

It should also be noted that he turned himself in.  “On or around August 4, 2009, I saw a police car in my neighborhood and decided to turn my self in to that officer as I thought I had been able to save enough money for my family to survive, at least initially, while I am incarcerated in prison,” Mr. Davis wrote.

“My wife is currently a student in phlebotomy so, hopefully, she’ll be able to support our family while I am still in prison. I pray that the amount I was able to save this last year will be enough to carry them until she is able to get employment n this field,” he continued.

Mr. Davis was actually facing about 30 years to life in prison for this error in judgment.  “This is an unbelievably outrageous sentence for a man who, at the very worst, wrote an insufficient funds check of less than $200 on two occasions totaling $215.94 for food and necessities for his family of 6, bailed out, resolved his case, and then failed to appear for sentencing,” Ms. Lance wrote.

“For these reasons, it does not appear that this is the type of case our justice system needs to continue its intervention with at this time,” she continued.  “It certainly is not the type of case the public would think should warrant a life sentence and it certainly is not a good use of the dwindling public coffers available for incarceration in this state.”

She added later, “Typically the offense by which Mr. Davis was originally convicted on would have been a misdemeanor. But for the fact of the district attorney’s choice to combine and add somewhat speculative charges, it was elevated to a felony. The district attorney also selected to file the failure to appear at sentencing as a felony with life enhancements. Even as a felony, typically the maximum term of confinement would have been three years.”

Next time you hear someone in the Yolo County judicial system whether it is a Judge, Prosecutor, or Law Enforcement officer think about this case.  Heck, next time you think about writing a check and you are not sure it is going to clear, remember this case as well.  Remember that the combined valued of the checks written was $215, remember that the DA had to combine the two checks to make it a felony, and remember that the cost to imprison this far exceeds to value of the crime itself.

Did Mr. Davis make mistakes in judgment?  Yes he did.  Clearly writing bad checks was a mistake and one that he obviously at the very least needed to pay restitution for.  Did that rise to the level of felony?  Should the DA’s office more reasonably charged him with two misdemeanors rather than combining the charges in order to turn them into a felony that would put him in prison for $215 worth of indiscretions?

Moreover Mr. Davis erred when he failed to appear to serve his jail term.  Again we can debate the propriety of the system where a man feels he needs to work for a year to save money for his family, but the bottomline is that he should have honored his commitment to turn himself in when he was ordered to do so.  He should not have bounced those checks perhaps intentionally. 

But a felony for two bad checks, never one coming close to the felony limit by themselves?  Why not two misdemeanors and a stern warning along with paying back to Nugget what he owed? 

Some will say, Mr. Davis got what he deserved, but to me this looks more like the crimes that Jean Valjean committed in Les Miserables where he received a nineteen year sentence, five for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts.  Apparently the Yolo County DA played the part of Javert in this modern adaptation. 

Is this justice for the taxpayer?  Is some more dangerous individual going to be set loose so that the taxpayers of California can house Mr. Davis away from his family for the next nine years?

Seems to me that the people of California and Yolo County deserve better.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 thoughts on “Yolo County Man Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison for Two Bad Checks”

  1. joe grey

    Wonderful! In a bankrupt state, in a bankrupt county. About $80,000 per year for 9 years. Nearly $1,000,000 paid to the prison industry. Makes a lot of sense! Economic stimulus indeed.

  2. itsme

    Hopefully, your write up of this ridiculous sentence will lead to a correction of this miscarriage of justice. It worked with the cheese theft.

  3. alanpryor

    The problem is not only the overreaching DA office – we know they are paid to produce convictions no matter the merits of the case. The problem here is the judge who is required to administer even-handed justice. Who was the judge here that decided to spend a million dollars of taxpayers money to impose a prison term for a few hundred dollars of bad checks? These types of Texas-justice judges have turned our legal system into a mockery of justice. Little wonder that most young folks and many older citizens now look at our judicial system as oppressive and unfair.

  4. E Roberts Musser

    dpd: “He had been facing 30 years to life as part of a three strikes, but that was reduced in final sentencing given the nature of his crimes.”

    What were his previous crimes?

    dpd: “To make matters worse, Mr. Davis compounded his problems when he failed to appear in court on November 3, 2008 to be taken into custody on a plea agreement that would have had him in prison for about 3 and a half years, still a rather steep penalty given the crime.”

    Failure to appear is thumbing one’s nose at the law – and is bound to result in more jail time. Usually if a defendant is sentenced to X number of years, he serves no more than half if he behaves himself. So this guy was only facing a probable jail sentence of a little over a year and a half. Sorry, but I’m not buying his convenient and self-serving story after the fact that he was “worried about his family”, and is the reason he was evading his jail time.

  5. wesley506

    The federal courts have ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding by 40,000 inmates. The Supreme Court will decide on the legality of this order early in 2011. Assembly bill 900 (AB900) authorized the state to sell $7.7 billion in bonds to fund construction of an additional 32,000 prison beds. The Legislative Analysts Office has found that the construction of the new prison beds is twice as expensive as anticipated and the $7.7 billion will only be enough for half the number expected. California now already pays $67/inmate/day to house 8,000 inmates in other states (approx $200,000,000/yr).

    If the Supreme Court orders that the state must comply with the federal court order, California will have to spend another $8 billion (in addition to the 7.7 billion already allocated) to build enough prison beds to reduce the population by 40,000. The annual operating expenses for this number of prison beds is approx $1.5 billion.

    We will have to very quickly shed this lock em up and throw away the key attitude, or be resigned to the fact that our taxes will be very very high, and all we will get will be more prisons.

  6. Adrienne Kandel

    David, thank you for bringing to our attention these travesties of justice. You’re providing a valuable service with this blog — exposing things like that and providing a discussion forum over city issues. So now if readers provide the valuable service of disseminating this sort of information and asking for a change to 3 strikes law,… it’s probably been a decade since people last tried to amend it, and the state wasn’t bankrupt then.

  7. Fight Against Injustice

    David and other Bloggers: What do you think the DA’s motive is when he proposes these long sentences? There have been three cases we have now heard about.
    1. Cheese man – DA wanted to send him away for life for $3.99.
    2. Poirier – DA wanted to send him away for life for breaking windows in an abandon home.
    3. Now Mr. Davis – DA wanted to send him away for 30 to life for writing bad checks = $215.

    Each of these should have been misdemeanors. The punishment should fit the crime (short jail sentence, probation, and/or fines). Life sentences seem way over the top.

    There must be something motivating the DA to act this way? What do you think it is?

  8. jimt

    I wonder if an amendment to the 3 strikes law could be put on the ballot, so that the 3rd strike (or maybe all 3) are applicable only for violent crimes. A well-crafted amendment has a good chance of passing a popular vote (I would vote for one), could save the state a lot of $, and in cases like this presumably keep a conscientious family man (who does a rather petty crime) out of the pen and able to again be a productive citizen instead of a burden on taxpayer

  9. Roger Rabbit

    This is why good laws get changed. The 3 strikes law was meant for “dangerous Violent” felons, the worst of the worst and now you have a political DA that only wants headlines and press releases. The courts will adjust this in time, but until then lots of people will suffer injustice at the hands of our Crooked and Corrupt DA.

  10. veritas necnon vita

    …If only he had a credit card. He could have run up the balance and walked away from his obligations without consequence…a striking disparity.

  11. Logos

    Cesare Beccaria who exerted an enormous influence over our legal system by way of the Founders (see his “On Crimes and Punishments”); wrote eloquently about the rational requirement and moral justification for PROPORTIONALITY attendant to punishment.

    Apparently, the Yolo County DA never received the memo.

  12. Frankly

    ” Mr. Davis wrote. “I continue to struggle with a lack of job opportunities, both because I am a laborer with spine injuries and because I suffered felony convictions with jail and prison sentences at a young age. However, I have tried to do the best I can and continue to do what I can to take care of my family. My family always comes first even, like now, when I must take the consequences for my actions.”

    “James Davis wrote in his declaration in which he fully admits to his crimes, “I did not appear on November 3,2008, nor for my probation interview because I knew I was going to prison for a long time and I was afraid for my family in that they would be in even more dire need when I am gone.”

    These comments seem to me indicative of someone with sociopathic tendencies or at least someone prone to making excuses for his bad and irresponsible behavior.

    In “taking care of his family” I wonder if he had considered the impact of his actions on his children. Economic classism is generally an adult malady; children naturally make friends and develop their self-worth without much consideration of family economic status (unless corrupted by the stated opinions of the adults around them). However, children tend to carry a level of shame having a parent incarcerated; and the lessons learned observing a parent knowingly break the law risk corrupting a child’s own sense of morality and judgment.

    When considering the scope of family damage cause by his crimes, his punishment might fit.

  13. Logos

    Of the right to punish.

    Every punishment which does not arise from absolute necessity, says the great Montesquieu, is tyrannical. A proposition which may be made more general thus: every act of authority of one man over another, for which there is not an absolute necessity, is tyrannical. It is upon this then that the sovereign’s right to punish crimes is founded; that is, upon the necessity of defending the public liberty, entrusted to his care, from the usurpation of individuals; and punishments are just in proportion, as the liberty, preserved by the sovereign, is sacred and valuable.
    – Beccaria

  14. Logos

    Disproportionality in punishment transforms the dehumanization, dissolution and the abandonment of moral conscience into the rule of men…where once the rule of law prevailed.

  15. memary10

    I do believe that the bankrupt state of California would spend its last dime on building a new prison. Sean Penn said it all “Come here on vacation, go home on probation” It’s not about law and order or public safety and certainly not about justice. It’s about keeping the most profitable business in the state going.

  16. indigorocks

    well I don’t know what his other felony counts were. perhaps he is a meth user and is notorious for this kind of action. perhaps there were other things he did, that the police knew about, but couldn’t get him for. i would like to know more about his history before i rush to judgement on this one.
    at first glance it’s a ridiculous punishment for the crime.

    I think Joe Gray’s comment that all this money is being wasted on the prison industry is a more compelling argument. if we put half the amount of money into real social services in order to prevent this from happening in the first place, we wouldn’t have to throw everyone in jail and lock away the key.

  17. Primoris

    memary10 penned[quote]I do believe that the bankrupt state of California would spend its last dime on building a new prison. Sean Penn said it all “Come here on vacation, go home on probation” It’s not about law and order or public safety and certainly not about justice. It’s about keeping the most profitable business in the state going.[/quote]

    Sean Penn, are you serious? A true authority….ROFLOL

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