In a trial that has and will receive more attention due to the subpoena of the Vanguard’s CEO by the Yolo County District Attorney, on Wednesday the jury returned a mixed verdict that largely favored the defendants.
On May 11, 2013, Guillermo and Sandra Bonilla were at home when a man knocked on the door asking them if they wanted to remove their property from the vehicle he was there to repossess. The Bonillas asserted that the bank made an error and that they asked the driver to show documents proving he had authority to take it. But he did not. What happened next would later cause the three, Mr. and Mrs. Bonilla and his brother, to be facing criminal charges.
Following about a week-long trial that saw brief testimony from the Vanguard editor, the jury returned yesterday with a verdict that acquitted Juan Carlos Bonilla of battery. The jury convicted all three – Sandra Bonilla, Guillermo Bonilla and Juan Carlos Bonilla – of felony vandalism for cutting the straps to the tow truck. Finally, it hung on the grand theft charges for Guillermo and Juan Carlos.
Prior to the end of the trial, the DA dismissed the grand theft against Sandra Bonilla. The DA prior to the trial dismissed the most serious charge – the robbery charge. As Defense Attorney Anthony Palik explained to the Vanguard, “I expect this is because it is almost unfathomable to think a jury will convict someone of ‘robbing’ their own car from the bank (or their agent, the tow truck driver), even if the bank is technically the legal owner until the car loan is paid.”
The vandalism charge is a felony because the cost of the straps is more than $400. The video clearly shows the two brothers cutting the straps. Most likely the punishment will be some sort of probation plus restitution for the cost of the damage.
The battery charge was more murky. One of the passages from the Vanguard’s reporting that the DA had David Greenwald testify to perhaps explains it best: “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.”
In the video, Juan Bonilla can be seen very briefly pulling the repossession agent off his brother. It appeared that that the agent was in physical contact with Guillermo when Juan Bonilla steps in to pull him off. It is unclear if the jury believed this act to be self-defense or so minimal as to not warrant criminal charges.
“Very generally, only the ‘close’ cases on the alleged charges make it to trial, otherwise they tend to settle,” Anthony Palik explained. He mostly praised the work of Deputy DA Michael Favero, though he called the subpoena of the Vanguard editor “uncalled for.”
Mr. Palik said that when he saw that the jury was evenly split on the grand theft charges, “I instantly knew the result and communicated it to my clients before the verdict was read: convicted on the vandalism charge for all three defendants and an acquittal on the only battery charge, which was alleged against Juan Carlos.”
He explained, “Where the jury is evenly split they almost always seek what is called a ‘compromise verdict.’ In this case, it was obvious that the compromise would be between the remaining charges of vandalism and battery.”
“Battery was the weakest charge, since it was the tow truck driver who first assaulted Guillermo. At that point, Juan Carlos was within his rights to protect Guillermo from further injury,” he said.
Mr. Palik added, “The conviction on vandalism was logical in terms of the compromise verdict since Guillermo did in fact cut the tow truck straps and the other two defendants were held liable for aiding and abetting that act. Even though those straps are worth far less than $400, there were many other items that were alleged to be damaged in some way (including the expensive towing dollies) and the jury was not required to specify how they arrived at the number of ‘over $400’ for the vandalism conviction.”
In his closing, Mr. Palik would argue, “We don’t know who took the dollies – there is no evidence of it. There was no insurance claim made, why? There was enough time for the driver to have gone back and taken them but we don’t know, we have no video showing who took them.”
He said that the most credible witness in this case is Officer Steven Godden, who testified that there were no identifying numbers on the tow truck that would tell you he is from a repo agency. He said the driver escalated this event and it could have been handled differently.
Mr. Palik went on to explain to jurors that the bank only took 26 days before attempting to repossess the car, but on the stand they testified that they wait until day 56. He said this case is about six cents (he holds up the coins) and it was a civil matter, not criminal, and even the dispatch repeated that to the Bonillas.
The attorneys will meet again on May 11 to discuss how to proceed from there. There is a possibility that the defendants could be retried on the grand theft charge despite the 6-6 split. Sentencing has not been scheduled as of yet.
—David M. Greenwald reporting