Yolo Judge Orders Man Freed From Life Sentence After Third Court of Appeals Throws Out Conviction

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Yolo-Count-Court-Room-600Aaron Ray Wilson this week was ordered free by Judge Arvid Johnson, following a late December ruling by the Third District Court of Appeals which threw out his convictions for carrying a concealed dirk or dagger which constituted a third strike and had him in prison for 28 years to life.

Mr. Wilson appealed the verdict that would have sent him to prison for a minimum of 28 years “contending, among other things, that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress a knife (the alleged dirk or dagger) seized from his back pocket during a pat down search initiated after a police officer was dispatched to a public park to investigate “five subjects [possibly] smoking H and S [sic] in the men’s restroom.”

He argued that his detention was unlawful because it “was based entirely on an uncorroborated anonymous tip” and “the seizure of the knife was the result of police exploitation of [that] unlawful detention.”

The appellate court agreed, concluding “that the officer who detained and searched defendant lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify the detention, and that the knife was fruit of defendant’s unlawful detention.”

In a hearing on February 7, Deputy District Attorney Clinton Parrish announced that, based upon the appellate court reversal “suppressing all evidence [in this case all evidence was the knife itself] against the Defendant and declaring his arrest and detention illegal, that the prosecution cannot proceed with this case against the Defendant.”

“The court orders the dismissal of these charges based thereupon,” Judge Johnson writes. “Based upon that dismissal, the court orders that all penalties assessed against the Defendant based upon this reversed conviction and dismissed case are vacated, including the Defendant’s state prison sentence.”

He then ordered Mr. Wilson to be released from prison.

Prior to the trial, Aaron Wilson’s attorney Rodney Beede had moved to suppress evidence that was seized during an investigatory stop and search of his person, based on the fact that it was the result of an unlawful search.

According to the appellate ruling, “Officer Gina Bell of the Woodland Police Department was the only witness to testify at the hearing on defendant’s motion.  She testified as follows:  At approximately 3:00 p.m. on September 24, 2008,  she “was dispatched to five subjects,” three males and two females, possibly smoking an illegal substance inside the men’s restroom at Harris Park in Woodland.”

The officer entered the rest room and checked around and apparently found a small plastic baggie floating in a toilet in the women’s restroom.  The bag was empty, however, Officer Bell testified that she had seen contraband in that type of bag in the past, and based on her training and experience, knew “people try to flush contraband, and plastic baggies float.” 

Mr. Wilson advised Officer Bell that he was not on parole or probation. 

According to the opinion from the Third DCA, “Bell asked him “if he had anything on him he shouldn’t have and he did not answer.”  Defendant conversed with his wife, and Bell overheard defendant’s wife mention something about knives.  Bell asked defendant about the knives, and he responded that he had “a lot of them.”  Bell then performed a pat down search of defendant “for [her] safety.”  Among other things, she seized a knife from his back pocket.”

They continue, “During cross-examination, Bell acknowledged that the dispatch did not indicate that anyone ‘saw them smoking methamphetamine out of a pipe or smoking a joint of marijuana,’ but rather it was a ‘[s]uspicion of the reporting party.’  Nor did she observe any of the five individuals engage in ‘any illegal or even suspicious activity’ or make any threatening gestures before asking them to sit on the curb.  At that point, she was just ‘investigating.’ “

The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress, finding “there were specific and articulable facts that the officer brought to the courtroom and expressed with regard to officer safety and reasonable precautions that an officer would take to make sure that something didn’t get out of hand.” 

In particular, the court noted that “[t]hese individuals were in an area where at least there was reported drug activity, though not confirmed in any true sense of the word, [and] certainly she had a right and a duty to investigate.  In doing so . . . she found the knife on the person of the defendant.” 

In this case, Mr. Wilson argued that the detention itself was illegal, since it was based entirely on an uncorroborated anonymous tip.

The appellate court noted, “The People do not dispute that defendant was detained when Bell asked him and the others to sit on the curb; rather, they respond that the detention was lawful because the anonymous tip was sufficiently corroborated to furnish the requisite reasonable suspicion that defendant was engaged in criminal activity.”

Citing case law, the court wrote, “An anonymous tip alone will seldom provide the reasonable suspicion necessary for an investigative stop because ‘ordinary citizens generally do not provide extensive recitations of the basis of their everyday observations and’ . . . the veracity of persons supplying anonymous tips is ‘by hypothesis largely unknown, and unknowable.’ ” 

The court argued that Officer Bell “had no information concerning the reporting party or the basis of his or her belief that three men and two women may have been smoking an illegal substance in the men’s restroom at the park.  Thus, the report was tantamount to an anonymous tip.”

The court added, “Apart from the tip, Bell had no reason to suspect defendant of illegal conduct.  She did not observe defendant or any of the other individuals engaged in any suspicious activity, and none of the individuals made any threatening gestures or acted aggressively toward her.”

The court argued that the defendant was not lawfully detained at the time of the pat search and found that the fear that Officer Bell asserted was not “objectively reasonable.”

“Bell had no reason to believe defendant was armed at the time she detained him,” they wrote. “She did not observe anything akin to a bulge in his clothing, and neither defendant nor the others made any threatening movements or acted aggressively.”

“Accordingly, defendant’s detention was not justified by Bell’s purported fear for her safety,” the Third Appellate Court concluded.

The court thus ruled, “Defendant’s detention was unlawful and the evidence seized through the exploitation thereof, most notably, the knife seized from defendant’s back pocket, was fruit of that detention, and thus, should have been suppressed.”

This is the fourth known Yolo court ruling, and third criminal conviction, that was overturned in the latest month and a half by the Third District Court of Appeals.

Some will undoubtedly argue that Mr. Wilson is free on a technicality since he had committed a crime.  However, those people ignore the value in the constitution that protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.  In other words, Mr. Wilson was doing nothing that should have warranted the search in the first place.

Moreover, here is another case where a relatively minor crime is met with a completely disproportionate sentence in which he would have served 28 years to life for carrying a four-inch knife in his back pocket – how anyone can justify that punishment is beyond me.

There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Wilson used that knife to attack or threaten anyone.

So, on that note, a technicality gets one put into prison for life and a technicality gets the individual who was unreasonably incarcerated released from prison.  Hopefully having served his time, Mr. Wilson will use his second chance to get his life straightened out.

—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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13 thoughts on “Yolo Judge Orders Man Freed From Life Sentence After Third Court of Appeals Throws Out Conviction”

  1. Iyah

    David, Thank you for the continued reporting into our legal system. It is truly invaluable.

    I find it amazing that the DA would try to put this man in prison for 28 years to life. The third strike law is so abused and not utilized the way it was told to the public when the public voted it in. It needs to be repealed.

  2. Roger Rabbit

    Just another example of serious flaws in the system. A common theory is most career criminals get away with about 3 to 5 crimes for everyone that they get caught for. Our system is based on 100 people go free to prevent one innocent man going to jail.

    However when you get DAs, cops and Judges who think too many go free for not good reason, they tend to take matters into their own hands. So you bend a rule here and there, you over step on a few rights and pass the buck down the line. The cops say, let the DA figure it out, if it is wrong they will fix it. The DAs say, let the Judges figure it out and the Judges say, if I am wrong that is what appeals are for. In the meantime “we the people” become pawns in the legal chess game and more and more people are going to jail and getting convicted of things that do not help society, but in fact hurt in many other ways. Such as loss of confidence in the system, loss of trust in elected officials and our prisons get packed, our budgets get eaten down and cooperation between government and the citizenry deteriorates.

    Which why I am so hard on this DA we have. He is supposed to be the check and balance, he is suppose to be the educator of cops so they don’t things they should not, he should look out for the people in his community by being fair and honest, his ambitions should not be the number one concern. Unfortunately, DA Reisig is not a good steward of the people, he continues to do this outrageous over changing, max prison time, shady plea deals and his “win at all cost” ego attitude.

    This case is basic first year law, justification, reasonable suspicion and fruits of the poisonous tree. Yet it is so accepted to ignore this in Yolo since this “lack of respect for the law” attitude that is constantly portrayed by this DA. As I have said before, why should Reisig care, the judges don’t spank him, he keeps getting over-turned cases like hiding guns from jury’s, hiding evidence in a death penalty case, hiding his gang injunction, and many others, and even with all these serious violations, all this waste of thousands of dollars, nothing happens.

    [quote]Having a case over-turned is no laughing matter, it is looked upon as very stern “discipline” from the higher court. It is becoming so common place that many this it is normal.[/quote]

    It is not normal and like career criminals getting away with 3 to 5 for every time they get caught, this is also true for the DA. For every one he is caught on, there are many others that slip through. Which is why it continues and will get worse, no accountability and people busy looking at his propaganda press releases and then discount these serious important issues.

  3. bachha

    What does it matter about his previous two strikes? He was a free man before he was sentenced to 28 years. This kind of sentencing is the most ridiculous justice. I cannot think of any other reason other than money being the motivation factor. CASH FOR CONVICTIONS seems to be the motto of Yolo County.

  4. Superfluous Man

    It can help explain the DA’s decision to pursue a third strike. How would the DA’s ofice financially benefit from having sought & obtained a third strike in this case?

  5. Fight Against Injustice

    This is the fourth reversal in six weeks by the appellate court. This unusual trend of reversals is strong evidence that someone needs to investigate what is happening in Yolo County.

    People have been complaining about injustice in Yolo County, and this trend of reversals by the appellate court(an authoratative entity) seems to be giving credence to their complaints.

  6. Superfluous Man

    fai,

    is six unusually high for this county? Six out of how many? At what rate are other county’s having their cases overturned. I think it’s difficult to conclude that these six reversals are indicative of a travesty in Yolo County’s justice system until these comparissons can be made and the data analyzed.

  7. Alphonso

    “I think it’s difficult to conclude that these six reversals are indicative of a travesty in Yolo County’s justice system until these comparissons can be made and the data analyzed.”

    I agree – the DA’s office and Superior Court for each county should be required to report the information with statistical comparisons to other counties. It would help voters evaluate Judges and DA’s and it would contribute to more informed juries.

    The important thing going on here is that the court reversals are being reported for Yolo County. I do not think this information is being reported in the local papers on any consistent basis.

  8. jimt

    A dirk is a pretty nasty weapon–designed for maximum lethality rather than as general tool.
    Aren’t dirks illegal?

    If he was carrying an illegal weapon (and/or carrying a weapon in violation of parole) seems this definitely warrants punishment; but I do agree not 28 years; maybe just 6 months or a year or so in county–seems to me the 3 strikes law should be amended to apply for violent crimes only.

  9. David M. Greenwald

    When the individual gets back to Yolo County, we might have a chance to talk to him. But apparently the knife wasn’t even hidden, it became hidden when the police officer was conducting her search. Also the appellate attorney indicated that this was one of the most egregious cases of an illegal search he had ever seen.

    I tend to agree with jimt that the punishment even if he had committed that crime was ridiculous.

    I don’t know that we can ever know out of how many. What I do find interesting is that in each of the cases thrown out, it was really judicial error that was involved.

    The judge improperly dismissed a civil case, a judge failed to rule that there was prejudicial juror misconduct, and in this case, a judge failed to throw out evidence when there was very blatantly an illegal search.

    As much as we have blamed the DA’s office for charging ridiculous crimes, the judges in this county have to be just as much to blame for most often failing to step up and throw some of these things out.

  10. Fight Against Injustice

    I did some research since people in this blog asked what was happening in other counties regarding reversals. I went on the third district appellate court website and looked at every case they have listed in the last 120 days.

    I found that 74% of all cases are affirmed (meaning that the appeal was unsuccessful). 10% of cases were reversed in full. 26% cases were reversed in part and affirmed in part.

    By County
    Yolo – 100% reversals
    Sacramento -35% partial or full reversals
    Placer – 33% reversals partial
    San Joaquin – 33% reversals partial or full
    Amador – 0% reversals
    Yuba – 0% reversals
    Shasta – 0% reversals
    Nevada – 0% reversals
    Calveras – 0% reversals
    Mono – 0% reversals

    If you would like to check this research go to:
    http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/opinions.cgi?Courts=C

    Now I want to again say that this trend of reversals from an authoratative legal entity seems to show that we do indeed have a problem with injustice in Yolo County.

  11. E Roberts Musser

    fai: Since your stats only involve the last 120 days, how many cases were considered for Yolo? One? In which case you would get 100%, but only bc one case was considered? Again context is necessary here. Reversals in how many cases out of how many cases?

    dmg: “As much as we have blamed the DA’s office for charging ridiculous crimes, the judges in this county have to be just as much to blame for most often failing to step up and throw some of these things out.”

    Yes, judges are not perfect either. But again, you need context. How many cases of mistakes by judges were reversed out of how many total cases, and over what period of time?

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