Public Defender Talks About the High Volume of Trials in Yolo County

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Yolo-Count-Court-Room-600 Judge David Rosenberg and District Attorney Jeff Reisig have argued that the increased number of trials in Yolo County is due to new court management practices that have streamlined the judicial process.  While that may have initially been true, there is now increasing evidence that the high volume of trials and the costs associated with them have more to do with the failure to settle cases that should have been settled earlier in the process.

There was an interesting discussion at the Board of Supervisors meeting last Tuesday on the number of jury trials in Yolo County, which have soared in the last few years.

 

Public Defender Tracie Olson told the Board that there were a large number of jury trials in the last few years.  “It’s absolutely true that we’re having more and more jury trials,” she told the Board.  “I think we had 112 last year, 121 each of the two years prior which prior to that I think we had 50 or 60 jury trials.  So workload is still very very high.”

Supervisor Matt Rexroad said, “I’m still struggling with that.”  He continued, “There’s the representation that we’re only filing on those things that we need to file on, that Jeff [Reisig] made, I believe him but at the same time we’re pushing people trying to push them through the process and that makes sense as well, I get that.”

“But,” he continue, “has crime really increased that much that jury trials need to increase to points that are double what they were previously?”

Tracie Olson responded, “It is my opinion that the number of jury trials has nothing to do with the crime rate.”

Previously, she said, we did have a backlog, and there were people in custody for years before their trial.  But she argued that is gone.

“There are some cases that you just have to try because we think the facts are one way and the District Attorney thinks its the other, both are legitimate, and a jury has to figure out for themselves which ones they believe and which witnesses are credible,” Ms. Olson said.

However, she said that there were a lot of jury trials where the two sides should be meeting in the middle.  She said her office has had 11 acquittals since the start of the year, including three acquittals on one day, and two of those three they could have settled.

We covered two of those trials that she mentioned, and the third one was a misdemeanor case.  One of them was the trial of Maria Cortez in which the jury acquitted Ms. Cortez after the police account did not match the video evidence.  That is a case where the public defender would have settled with an offer that would have protected the woman’s chance for amnesty in her immigration status, but the DA refused and it went to trial.

The other case was Fernando Ortega, who was fixing his truck while under the influence of meth, the jury acquitted him of having illegal weapons, but convicted him of being under the influence of a controlled substance.  In that case, the DA offered prison time and had they offered probation, they could have settled for what the jury ultimately decided.

In our view, both of these cases are examples of a waste of resources by the county, by local agencies, and by the state.  But if the DA refuses to make a reasonable offer, there is little choice for the defense but to take it to trial.

Public Defender Tracie Olson was a bit more diplomatic on Tuesday, both, in terms of blame and in terms of the solution.

“We just couldn’t meet on the minutiae,” she said, “so we ended up having a jury trial, we did a great job, and our clients were acquitted.”

Supervisor Rexroad asked what has changed in the past few years, saying, “So far I have not seen any major changes in society out there, so the only thing that can account for that is a decision by your office or the District Attorney’s office to force those things to a jury trial.”

“I think my office would say the DA’s have changed.  I think the DA’s office would say my office has changed,” she responded.  “I think they’re both right.”

She also suggested that the courts do not get involved as much as they used to.  By this she meant that judges need to pre-conference cases “in a meaningful way.”  The sides in chamber would lay out their cards and the judges would say, “given this, this is what I would do.”

“Sometimes we don’t have to fight anymore if we know [what a judge is inclined to do given the facts presented to him],” she said.  “So the judges need to do more work and the judges acknowledge that.”

Supervisor Jim Provenza indicated that this was brought up last year and Tracie Olson responded that it has been subject to ongoing discussions.

Supervisor Provenza added, “I don’t want to cut costs by eliminating jury trials where there needs to be one.  But if there are cases that could settle but for the lack of judicial involvement then that’s something that we need to address.”

Tracie Olson concluded that portion of the discussion by citing shared blame among all of the parties.

Ms. Olson is going out of her way to be diplomatic here, I get that.  She wants to look reasonable in front of her bosses.  And she is in a tough position, because she is the unequal partner here.

The DA is independently elected.  Judges are appointed and then, at least nominally, face reelection every six years.  However. the public defender is appointed by the Board of Supervisors and works at their pleasure.

So it is understandable that she would be diplomatic.  However, in terms of her responsibility, it is to her clients and their best interests.  Many of the interns at Yolo Judicial Watch and I have watched her office at work, and they have some excellent attorneys and they do a great job of representing their clients.

From my standpoint, the problem is not the public defenders or the defense attorneys.  The problem is primarily with the DA’s office.  They overcharge cases.  They charge cases that they should never charge.  They charge felony charges in misdemeanor cases.  And finally, they do not make credible offers.

If the public defender’s office had taken the plea offer in either the cases mentioned, they would have been negligent in their primary duty, to provide a good and credible defense to their clients.

The Public Defender’s office should not be concerned with costs when they make their deals.  That is the job of the District Attorney.  The DA in this county views their role almost as the pure opposite of the Public Defender’s office and defense attorneys.

But I do not believe that is the proper role.  The DA should be representing the people of this community, not just the victims, and their job is not just to prosecute but rather it is to dispense a just outcome. The DA possesses the power of discretion in deciding whether to file or not, and that is a role that is more than purely adversarial. The defense must respond and defend.

Tracie Olson has been diplomatic as she should, but there is no blame for her office in not taking the plea agreements offered in the two cases we cited above, they were not reasonable and her office’s clients are better off having gone to trial.  The blame there falls with the DA’s office not offering a more reasonable plea agreement.

I also understand why Ms. Olson would want more judicial involvement, even though for the most part the judges seem inclined to side with the prosecution in this county.  But at least that would be a moderating force on the DA’s actions.

We will see where this goes.  Obviously, after a slew of acquittals, the DA’s office may be forced to change the way they charge and prosecute these cases.

Some have suggested this is the way the system should work, but in my view it is the expensive way for the system would work.  There is no reason we should be having 120 felony trials a year in this county.  Half of these case are either bogus or should have been settled long before the trial stage – maybe more.

—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 “Public Defender Talks About the High Volume of Trials in Yolo County”

  1. jonlancaster

    DMG: “my view it is the expensive way for the system would work”

    Expensive? As compared to what? What should be the price of justice?

    Actually, David I understand what you’re saying, but if we looked at the total, fully burdened cost of justice (arrest, pretrial incarceration, trial, post coviction incarceration, etc.) then the best financial solution is to not enforce lots of laws at all, right?

    Someone steals $10 worth of cheese and the government spends $10M to penalize them?

    Another part of this system that’s a big part of the problem is that the DA’s office is driven by grants with conviction types & rates attached as strings. And the fact that a job as an ADA is typically a “stepping stone” job and you can’t move on the the stepping stones along the path without a certain conviction rate, hence the willingness to overcharge crimes, refuse to deal, force plea bargains, etc.

    If we really wanted to fix the system, every person in the United States accused on any crime from shoplifting a pack of gum to multiple homicide should demand a jury trial, demand a competent defense by a public defender, file sanction motions against the DA every time they refuse to turn over discovery in a timely manner, etc.

    Some huge percentage of cases are plea bargained – I’ve read from 85-95%.

    This is the root cause problem with the whole system in my honest opinion…

  2. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Tracie Olson has been diplomatic as she should, but there is no blame for her office in not taking the plea agreements offered in the two cases we cited above, they were not reasonable and her office’s clients are better off having gone to trial. The blame there falls with the DA’s office not offering a more reasonable plea agreement.”

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I would strongly disagree. Tracie Olson has pointed out that things have changed on THREE SIDES – prosecution, defense, judiciary. And since the judiciary is in essence in a “leadership role”, I would argue that is where the buck stops. Let me explain. From my limited trial experience, judges set the tone in the criminal justice system. I know in the Sacramento family law courts, an adminstrative law judge told me they were instructed from on high “thou shalt settle a case if at all possible”. The same applies here in Yolo County.

    If the head of the court system, namely Judge Rosenburg, made it very clear that he wants cases to settle out of court, the DA and defense would have more incentive to settle cases out of court. But if a judge is looking more towards “streamlining” case management so that more cases can be prosecuted in a quicker amount of time – in other words if Judge Rosenburg can brag he runs 120 cases a year through his courtrooms in jig time – there is no incentive to remove cases from the court docket.

    Here is how I see the scenario possibly playing out in Yolo County. Judge Rosenburg was assigned as head judge w/o perhaps the necessary experience. As a result, he may not have fully understood his role of using the “bully pulpit” to keep the DA’s Office in check when it comes to charges brought, plea deals taken, etc. He needed to make settling cases a top priority in his courthouse. The DA, given free reign w no restrictions, goes full throttle, advocating vigorously for victims and the people of the state. The Public Defender, then also has to rachet up its role, in protecting defendants from overreaching by the DA’s Office. It becomes a vicious circle, w the doubling of cases going to trial as the result, even tho the amount of crime committed is fairly stable within the county.

    I don’t know if this is in fact the scenario, but it is certainly a reasonable possibility. When Tracie Olson blames all three prongs of the justice system, I don’t think she is being “diplomatic”. I think she is being honest and probably quite accurate…

  3. medwoman

    Jonlancaster

    “then the best financial solution would be not to enforce lots of laws at all, right”

    Perhaps there could be a solution somewhere between the extremes of non enforcement and the extremely expensive incarceration ?
    More extensive use of community service for non violent offenders as one example.
    I am clearly outside my area of expertise and am sure this group could come up with many more less costly and probably more just options than what we have now.

  4. hpierce

    Let’s guess “job security” is a factor. The more cases that go to trial, the better justification for court staff, overtime, etc. Juries are the least expensive part, particularly where many jurors work in the public sector, where by law, their employer pays them their normal rate, not the pittance provided by the county. The defense attorneys also profit, keeping their billable hours up, whether paid by the defendant, or the county.

  5. Sue Greenwald

    Recently I mentioned that most people I know in Davis get repeat jury summons. Yet during the 24 years that my husband and I lived in the Bay Area, only one of us was called and it was only once. That is once in 48 man/woman years.

    Would someone be willing to research the number of trials per capita in Yolo County versus the average in California?

  6. Sue Greenwald

    The county is planning on replacing its elegant historic courthouse with a new $175 million courthouse. This is astounding to me. It would be astounding even if there were not plenty of room in the parking lot behind the building to build a modest annex – which there is.

    The money is supposed to come from the State. The State plans to take away city RDA funds next year and give them to the courts.

    If you divided up that $175 million equally in Yolo County, Davis’ share would be about $45 million.

    [b]THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH TO PAY OFF OUR RETIREE HEALTH UNFUNDED LIABILITY.[/b]

    Where on earth are the State’s priorities?

  7. Roger Rabbit

    Come on, the DA has full capability to stop this and work for the people rather than for his record or grant justifications. The tone in the DA’s Office is, the DA said the Public Defender and the Board of Supervisors can say what they want, no one tells him how to charge or what to file or when to make a deal. This is his prevailing attitude since his election. My way or the highway and why shouldn’t he, he gets no repercussion for being that way. The board gives him all his budget increases, he gets new positions and is allowed to re-grade people to higher pay levels, creates new supervisor and management positions in time of no money and “No one” tells him No.

    If the Judges put pressure on him, he simply ignores it and then does one of his false and misleading press releases, blaming the judge for letting some bad guy go or ruining his case or making bad rulings.

    Everyone wants to talk about how we are broke, yet for the DA, it is business as usual and the hell with anyone that disagrees with him.

  8. Superfluous Man

    ERM,

    “You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I would strongly disagree. Tracie Olson has pointed out that things have changed on THREE SIDES – prosecution, defense, judiciary.”

    While that may be true, it would seem that the PD’s “change” is reactionary. As the DA’s Office instructs its DDA’s to refuse “reasonable” deals and opts to take cases to trial that are not very strong, the PD has a decision to make…give the DA’s Office what they want or take their chances at trial. It sounds like the DA’s Office is not willing to budge much come deal time, at least in the cases that end up at trial.

    I believe the statistic from the PD’s office, last time she spoke to the BOS about this issue, was 40% of the time they go to trial they beat the deal offered by the DA’s Office at the outset. I would need to double-check that though. From what I’ve gathered, that’s a relatively high rate of “success.”

    Crime has not exponentially increased in this county, the circumstances of these crimes/cases have likely not changed drastically in the last three years to warrant doubling the number of trials and the defense attorneys are not “winning” with more frequency because that office has had an influx of highly skilled trial attorneys (not that the ones they have are bad) hired on in the past three years or so.

    The reality is this: the DA’s Office believes that taking cases to trial is in the best interest of someone or something. They are largely responsible for the huge increase in cases litigated in Yolo county courtrooms. It should come as no surprise that this exponential increase coincides with the election of DA Reisig (the data is online-PD Olson presented it to the BOS last year.)

    Now, I’m not saying Reisig is wrong in his philosophical approach to justice seeking. One of, if not the, primary goal of the DA is public safety. If the public’s/victim’s safety is directly correlated with the incarceration/supervision or degree thereof (ie probation) of the offender/defendant and the PD’s Office is beating (ie less/no incarceration and supervision) the DA’s offer almost half the time, perhaps the DA needs to reevaluate its policy.

    There’s also the concern of resources being pulled away to litigate cases that the DA’s Office would probably have been better of settling beforehand and what, if any, impact that has on other cases receiving the proper attention given the scarce resources DA Reisig purports to have.

    Perhaps there are other forces, factors, ulterior motives, etc that are influencing the decision. I don’t know. It honestly doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe Rexroad’s curiosity will lead to some explanations from DA Reisig.

  9. Superfluous Man

    Sue,

    “The county is planning on replacing its elegant historic courthouse with a new $175 million courthouse. This is astounding to me. It would be astounding even if there were not plenty of room in the parking lot behind the building to build a modest annex – which there is.”

    Are they actually replacing the courthouse? Which parking lot are you referring to? I think the “need” for the new courthouse is also due to safety concerns and privacy (namely regarding delinquency cases).

    “Would someone be willing to research the number of trials per capita in Yolo County versus the average in California?”

    That would be an interesting statistic.

  10. Mr.Toad

    I remember when the DA ran someone told me that Jeff was not lazy like Henderson. I guess that translates into him taking more cases to trial. But the notion that he is immune to criticism from the Board of Supervisors is naive. Interestingly he is already negotiating a case that before last week was headed for trial.

  11. Mr Obvious

    [quote]The county is planning on replacing its elegant historic courthouse with a new $175 million courthouse. This is astounding to me. It would be astounding even if there were not plenty of room in the parking lot behind the building to build a modest annex – which there is.

    The money is supposed to come from the State. The State plans to take away city RDA funds next year and give them to the courts.

    If you divided up that $175 million equally in Yolo County, Davis’ share would be about $45 million.

    THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH TO PAY OFF OUR RETIREE HEALTH UNFUNDED LIABILITY.

    Where on earth are the State’s priorities? [/quote]

    The Yolo County Court House was built in 1917. If you have ever been in the downstairs bathrooms there is mold on the ceiling and the paint and plaster is falling off. It has been identified as one of the top court houses in the state for replacement.

    All funds for replacement are coming from a $30 fee assessed to each defendant when they are convicted of a crime. I’ve been following this rather closely and and haven’t heard anything about the court house using redevelopment fees. I think the only impact to a general fun has been the City of Woodland who pitched in on the purchase of the land.

    The point is to consolidate all the courtrooms into one building. At this point they are spread across downtown woodland. If you had been following the progress of the courthouse you would see there are some definite plus sides to the new courthouse. There may be some redevelopment fees associated to this project but it is being funded in large by convicted defendants, which I’m fine with.

  12. Superfluous Man

    Mr. Toad,

    “I remember when the DA ran someone told me that Jeff was not lazy like Henderson. I guess that translates into him taking more cases to trial. But the notion that he is immune to criticism from the Board of Supervisors is naive.

    Illustrating that his office does negotiate, but that’s not exactly the point. Are you finding a correlation re: cases tried and hard work?

    Do you happen to know how many cases Reisig has tried, personally, since he was elected?

  13. Sue Greenwald

    [quote]I think the “need” for the new courthouse is also due to safety concerns and privacy (namely regarding delinquency cases) — Superfluous Man .[/quote]Sure. We are all dealing with concerns that are not being optimally met. Old courthouses throughout the country are retrofitted for security and privacy.

    We could make arguments justifying replacing our city and school facilities. Our Davis city hall is an old schoolhouse with staff permanently crammed into temporary annex trailers. Our city councilmembers don’t even have offices. Our schools have disintegrating ceilings.

    My jaw hit the floor when I read the $175 million courthouse replacement figure. Hopefully someone will tell me it was a typo.

    By way of comparison the Mondavi center with its special-order imported limestone, it’s box-within a box construction and “its fir logs recovered from the bottom of Ruby Lake in British Columbia … used to create the exquisite wall paneling, cabinetry, and furniture throughout the facility” cost $61 million. $175 million is four and a half times our entire annual city general fund budget. $175 million would probably pay off all of the unfunded liabilities in the entire county.

    And remember, a magnificent marble-encrusted historic courthouse already exists. So it was built in 1917? Have you ever been to New York, Boston, London or Paris? (I would explore the feasibility of scrubbing the bathroom ceiling with Clorox and bringing in a good sheetrock contractor).

    This is an era of great financial hardship. State revenue is state revenue. If the state collects it, they have an obligation to put it to the best use.

  14. Mr.Toad

    Good time to build a courthouse when construction is down. Putting people to work at prevailing wages has a multiplier effect in the local economy. Its sort of a modern WPA deal. Of course Courthouses are not concert halls and have their own special needs.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    To RR and SM: Times they may be achangin’. If the BoS decides it is not going to fund the DA’s Office to the extent is has… and if Judge Rosenberg is listening to the conversation at the BoS…

  16. Sue Greenwald

    I would like to clarify my unfunded liability comparison with the cost of the new county courthouse which will replace the magnificent old courthouse:

    $175 million would probably be enough to pay off the unfunded liability for retiree health for all of the cities in Yolo County.

  17. kathryndruliner

    The number of cases the DA takes to trial and loses would decrease if they did their pre-trial investigation as any other lawyer (public defender included) does. I have been shocked by the lack of familiarity the grant funded ddas have with their cases and their “victims”. It is not only the grant funded cases, but [and maybe this was a grant funded case (?)] I remember reading about the hispanic woman testifying recently from the witness stand for the da who said repeatedly “why is the shooter not in the courtroom?” This would never, never, never happen in any properly prepared case criminal, civil, family law, etc. The public defenders know their witnesses better and that is why they know the proper resolution pre-trial. This is also one of the major reasons the DAs lose or at least lose the charges that were overcharged and prevented a plea. I handled the Artz case and was appalled at how little the prosecutor knew this “victim” a grant funded position which is grant funded so that she will bond with and know her “victim” strengths, weakness, all of it. It all factors into a plea. That is why she lost the forcible rape charge. It would have plead if properly charged.

  18. Iyah

    I can’t believe that Mr. Obvious thinks the $175 million is coming from a $30 fee assessed against defendants when they are convicted. That would mean there were 5.8 million convictions. That is ludicrous. I don’t think even LA County or New York County could have that many convictions.

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