Commentary: Classic Overreach and Overcharge by DA’s Office in Repo Man Case

It was October, last fall, when I received my first contact from the Bonilla family. I quickly reached out to their private counsel, Attorney Anthony Palik, whom I have known since the 2010 Galvan brothers trials. This case has a lot of interesting elements – the fact that they were accused of robbery, battery, and grand theft, based on a confrontation in which the bank had made errors.

There was the overly-aggressive play by the repossession agent (whom we have generously avoided naming throughout the trial coverage) and a potentially illegal no-warrant raid on the family home by Detective Ken Fellows (who has a checkered history) and the police.

Much has been made of the DA’s attempts to subpoena me and put me on the stand. Deputy DA Michael Favero is a young attorney, and perhaps that explains a bit of his aggressiveness towards me and others in this case. Vanguard Court Watch interns have described the Deputy DA as being very aggressive and condescending towards several the witnesses, particularly Guillermo Bonilla, during cross-examination.

When I arrived at court, Mr. Favero greeted me on Monday but was immediately surprised to see that I had counsel. It is a good thing I did. We thought we could stipulate that I wrote the entire article, as it laid the foundation the DA would need to bring in prior inconsistent statements as a means to discredit the defendants. However, when Mr. Favero initially told Vanguard Attorney Josh Kaizuka that he wanted to ask questions beyond that limited scope, we took the matter to Judge Reed.

Ryan Couzens, over whom we have spilled much ink throughout the years, was brought in to handle the Media Shield Law Arguments. Originally, he argued that the Vanguard is not a real media source and should not qualify. Judge Reed immediately shut that down, basically stating, let’s assume they are. He challenged Mr. Couzens to show him direct case law indicating otherwise. With that issue off the table, Mr. Couzens was actually in agreement that a reporter could only be compelled to affirm that they wrote the article and authenticate the quotes.

Honestly, it was a waste of everyone’s time, as the two statements that got read into the record were used for impeachment purposes, but frankly I think one of the statements was misread by the DA and actually benefited the defense.

“Guillermo Bonilla attempted to remove the partially attached straps, when the agent reached around his face and grabbed his mouth with both hands, causing him to bleed. It was at this point that Juan Bonilla pulled the agent off his brother.”

If you watch the video, that explanation is plausible. You can see Guillermo Bonilla fiddling with the straps, the agent tried to intervene and may well have made contact with Guillermo and then Juan Carlos definitely pulled the agent off his brother for a millisecond – that was the basis of the battery charge for which Juan Carlos would rightly be acquitted.

From the video it is not clear that it is self-defense, but it’s such minimal contact that one has to wonder, even if there were a conviction, whether the judge wouldn’t reduce it to a misdemeanor.

Mr. Favero pleaded with the jury to ignore the conduct of both the agent and the police officers – hence his Baltimore reference, but I think their conduct was difficult to ignore and, as Officer Godden testified, it escalated things beyond where they needed to go.

Officer Godden admitted that the repossession agent unnecessarily escalated the situation. When he arrived, he reportedly refused to provide the Bonillas with identification or the paperwork. His vehicle had no markings. He opted to confront the Bonillas rather than call the police and have the police handle the matter.

As noted, the video may have been ambiguous about the brief physical confrontation, but the repossession agent did himself no favors when it came to light in the trial that there was a video recording in which he described the Bonillas as “looking like Mexican narcotraffickers.”

Those kinds of comments, which came out during a fiery cross-examination last week, really put the repossession agent’s actions in a very different light and probably tipped the jury’s assessment from seeing him as the victim to seeing him as the aggressor.

Equally, the conduct by Detective Fellows of the West Sacramento Police Department probably played into the jury’s assessment of the case. Detective Fellows ignored Ms. Bonilla’s stated request that she did not want to talk with him and her assertion for an attorney. Detective Fellows was confronted on the stand for threatening to take away the Bonilla’s child if they did not return the dollies.

The biggest problem is he arranged a SWAT team to search their home without a search warrant. They busted down the door, but they only had an arrest warrant. The defense attorney would argue that the police overstepped the authority of the arrest warrant and used it to conduct a general search rather than an arrest.

Detective Fellows even went to their place of work and threatened to have them deported because he believed they were hiding drugs. Ultimately, they did not find the drugs or evidence of other crimes they expected.

Most importantly, they also never found the dollies and there is no witness who ever saw the Bonillas take them. That became the basis for the hung jury on the grand theft – they never found the dollies, no one saw the Bonillas take them, and you cannot see them take the dollies on the video. Therefore, the prosecution never proved that there was a theft.

At the end of the day, this was an overreach by the DA’s office and an overreaction by Detective Fellows – and the conduct of the repossession agent should be scrutinized here. The DA’s office dropped the robbery charges before the trial began. They dropped grand theft charges against Sandra Bonilla prior to closing arguments.

The jury acquitted Juan Carlos Bonilla of the battery. They hung on the grand theft for the two brothers. And finally, they convicted the Bonillas of the only crime they really committed – cutting the straps. Mr. Palik disagrees on the value of those straps, but, given everything, this appeared to be a good resolution to a case that was overcharged from the start.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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29 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    “Mr. Favero pleaded with the jury to ignore the conduct of both the agent and the police officers – hence his Baltimore reference, but I think their conduct was difficult to ignore and, as Officer Godden testified, it escalated things beyond where they needed to go.”

    this is the key – where are the consequences for the police and repossession agent and i think his conduct calls for him to be identified by name.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      There is clearly an unhealthy asymmetry in the pursuit of, or administration of, “justice” in this case. It has resulted in people who were simply acting rationally becoming convicted felons, no matter how “good” that resolution might be in contrast to the abuse of power and over-reaching “legal” intimidation by “The People.”

      I strongly agree that the repo dude should be identified and reprimanded. He’s lucky his encounter was with such a mild and self-restrained family. Oink!

  2. maxeyrus

    Stop protecting criminals. If you can’t afford to make payments on an expensive car dont buy it to then have it repossessed. The only individuals that cant have trust in law enforcement are the criminals that have history with them.  Again, dont buy what you cant pay.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i find it interesting that you’re focused on the criminality of the family rather than the criminality of those in authority positions – repo agent, police, district attorney – all of whom CLEARLY abused their power.

        1. Davis Progressive

          no, i think the family got convicted of vandalism felony and that’s about right.  i don’t agree that their behavior went beyond that.  the people in authority escalated this far more than the family.

        2. sisterhood

          DP- I agree. Unnecessary escalation. Anyone know what the average age of a prosecutor is? Seems like they hire a lot of kids right out of law school?

      1. Frankly

        There is a line of social behavior where falling below it leads to attention from the hand of authorities of government.  And the hand is generally ham-fisted… because government is not, and never will be, a loving institution.  Government has no competition.  It lacks a customer-service orientation because the employees of government get to keep their jobs no matter how they treat their customers.

        The key is to not fall below the line of behavior that causes a visit from the authorities of government.  And when a person or family does fall below that line, they should be accountable for their own actions and the rest of us should accept that encounters will be fraught with imperfections that are normal with government business.

        1. Davis Progressive

          in this case, it may have been a bank error that led to this happening.  you’re talking about a family with no criminal record.  suddenly you have the police breaking down the door and looking for drugs based on whims of fantasy by a rogue police officer. that should scare the crap out of an anti-government conservative such as yourself.

        2. sisterhood

          It’s like they get all this training on how to properly kick the sht out of someone’s front door and they need an excuse to practice their technique. Maybe I should be thinking about my own experience in a different light. Maybe I should be thanking God they only threatened to kick down my door, and they did not kick me or my son or my 18 year old daughter.

        3. sisterhood

          “There is a line of social behavior where falling below it leads to attention from the hand of authorities of government.”

          Problem being we all have a slightly different take on what’s acceptable social behavior. In Berkeley, if you wear strong after shave or slap your child, there is a city ordinance forbidding that. In other cultures, you are not allowed your top shelf snifter. I would have to cover my hair or face, depending on where I choose to live.

          If I had made all my car payments and needed my car to support my family, I would have reacted similarly to that repo bully.

    2. Tia Will

      The only individuals that cant have trust in law enforcement are the criminals that have history with them.”

      This is absolutely not true from my direct personal experience. During a routine traffic stop, I was the passenger, and was lied to not once, but twice by the investigating officers. This was confirmed subsequently by a Davis police officer whom I know personally to have not been either legal or ethical. So much for the idea that law enforcement can be trusted blindly by those who who are innocent.

      1. sisterhood

        Thanks to the Dixon Police FORCE I will never cooperate with an officer again, unless my family members are in dire danger. This is coming from the daughter of a cop. I told an officer recently that the only time I will ever contact them is when someone is breaking into my home, after I determine it is not a cop breaking into my home. I don’t feel good writing this. I was hoping after enough time passed I’d trust them again. It’s been almost a decade and many years of therapy and xanax rx’s, so I guess that ain’t happening.

        The real crime is that my son and daughter feel the same way. I worry about my daughter being in a dangerous situation someday, and not being able to get help. It would make her grandfather very very sad and angry.

    3. Napoleon Pig IV

      “Stop protecting criminals”

      I would bet that 99 percent of our fellow citizens are guilty of one or more violations of petty laws in any given month. If the Porcine Powers want to swing their big appendages around, they can arrest or intimidate almost anybody for something.

      Government should not be a criminal enterprise. Oink!

  3. Biddlin

    ” Government has no competition.  It lacks a customer-service orientation because the employees of government get to keep their jobs no matter how they treat their customers.

    Ask folks in Baltimore about how to address that.

    ;>)/

  4. maxeyrus

    Did Vanguard do a criminal background check on all individuals of this household? Maybe we should look at this as well as their history with law enforcement authorities. Maybe because of their history, reason they are so concerned and worried of dealing with authority. If they are the same as Bonilla Trucking it goes to show they dont like to pay their debts as to why the tax board has liens on this business. Lets all just approve their actions. I dont condone the actions of the police nor with the actions these individuals took, but their stories did not have any credibility either.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i find your comments a bit curious as though you have a personal stake in this.  the jury found them guilty of vandalism and not the other charges – do you think the jury erred?

    2. sandy2381

      FYI we are not Criminals,this is the first time we had to go through this and first time we been convicted,I guess you don’t have nothing better to do lol ,stop talking like you know my family, I hope you never have to be in this situation, things happens and we don’t have control of it, We never have ask for something to anybody, you are free to give your opinion but not to talk about someon like you know their personal live’s.

      1. hpierce

        Given the passion with which you write, all I can do is wish you and yours the best, given what has happened, and hold tight to your family.

    3. sisterhood

      Maxeyrus,

      Have you ever changed lanes quickly and forgot to use your turn signal? Have you ever barely made it to the DMV before your plates expired, or perhaps drove your car there a few days late? Have you ever drank 2 glasses of wine with your dinner and then driven home? You mean to tell us in your entire lifetime you have never committed one act of breaking a rule or a law? Wow.

      Judge not.

  5. maxeyrus

    No, the jury was right on their findings and Im glad our police dept. has been exposed for their continued corruption but you seem to side with actions that are erroneous to our society, is this for personal gains and approval of your readers and subscribers, lol which I happen to be one just that I dont always agree with your take on some matters.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i can’t answer for the site, as i’m just a poster, but i would say that for me at least, i tend to look more at the government – we already have processes in place to deal with crime, but we don’t do well at policing the police, the prosecutors and the court.

      1. maxeyrus

        Agree with you 100% that we dont police our authorities but lets not use this excuse to say they are always at fault. We are all humans and we all make mistakes. We cant go around and blame our actions for how screwed up our govenment it.

  6. sisterhood

    “Detective Fellows even went to their place of work and threatened to have them deported because he believed they were hiding drugs.”

    The Dixon Police Force contacted my office on numerous occasions when I was waiting to hear back from my lawyer. They were trying to interview me about a family member, after they wrongfully arrested him without any investigation whatsoever, a she-said he-said charge. I got the uncomfortable feeling they realized they made a grave error, and instead of apologizing (we would never have sued them) they felt like they had to come up with some dirt on him to make their wrongful arrest stick.

    Fortunately, one of my managers had problems with law enforcement years ago and he did not mind me getting bothered at work. If I was in a minimum wage job, I probably would have been fired. I also had to be interviewed on work time. They couldn’t bother setting up an evening appointment for me.

    When I hesitated to agree to go to the station house to be interviewed, they threatened to send CPS to my home to interview my kids. That did nothing to make me cooperate. I had nothing to hide, but I did not want my teenagers bothered at the their high school or at home. I finally went to talk to them, without my lawyer present. ( I was saving my money because his hourly rate was a lot. I thought I might need him later, to defend my family member.)

    It was a very enlightening experience to be interviewed by the cops without a lawyer. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that.

    I was fortunately able to record their phone calls to me at work so that made me feel a little better. I would have never taken money from the cops in a law suit. All I want is an apology, which I will never receive. Macho cops view apologies as a sign of error and weakness. And they will never admit they did anything wrong. I’m including women in my use of the word “macho”.

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