Back in September, in advance of a budget item on the public defender’s office, Yolo County put out some rather remarkable statistics – statistics that the Vanguard has actually been tracking for some time.
The data presented from the 2014-15 year showed that Yolo County conducted more trials than each of the seven counties historically benchmarked against, in Yolo County salary comparison studies.
But not only that, Yolo County conducted more jury trials than counties with larger populations in absolute terms. Yolo County had 81 felony and 80 misdemeanor trials in 2014-15 compared to 68 from the next largest county, Stanislaus, which has more than twice Yolo County’s population and more than each of Alameda, Fresno, Marin, Monterey, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Stanislaus and Tulare.
Adjusting for population, Yolo County had the highest jury trial rate in the state, more than counties like Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Santa Clara. In fact, Yolo County’s rate was more than twice the next highest county – Kern. Yolo had 75 trials per hundred thousand, Kern had 35.
But numbers are sometimes just abstractions.
A recent burglary trial perfectly illustrates why Yolo County has this problem. I will argue, as I have, that this is an issue of overcharging and unwillingness for the DA to offer reasonable offers pre-trial.
In an article earlier this week, court watch intern Kelsey Landon writes about the case of Nicholas Berends, who faced two counts of burglary for stealing and selling his roommates’ PlayStations.
For the defense, they don’t dispute that Mr. Berends stole the PlayStations – the problem is that, under Proposition 47, petty theft with a value less than $800 is considered a misdemeanor and the DA is doing contortions to get this into a first degree felony burglary charge.
As Public Defender Martha Sequeira put it – entering different rooms in a house is not entering a dwelling unlawfully unless the DA is arguing that those rooms represent actual separate dwelling places.
This is clearly not how the law was intended to read. What the law on burglary sought to punish was those who broke into an inhabited dwelling and then committed a crime such as theft. In this
case, all the guy did was steal and he should be held accountable for the theft, but it should be charged as theft.
Controversial Deputy DA Frits van der Hoek was the prosecuting attorney here. As you will recall, Mr. van der Hoek is the former San Jose State police officer involved in a controversial officer involved shooting.
Now he is clearly doing some mental gymnastics to get this to a felony.
Mr. van der Hoek, in his rebuttal closing argument, argued that the laws and facts were not on the defense’s side. The deputy DA claimed that, even if those rooms were not separate dwellings, Mr. Berends still committed at least one count of burglary because he violated a room within a building that was not his.
This basically left the decision in the hands of the jury and the jury, as it turned out, did not outright acquit Mr. Berends, but instead hung. Ten of the 12 jurors were ready to acquit but two held out for guilt.
With the jury unable to reach a verdict, the prosecution, realizing that they were in a no-win situation, settled the case for… two misdemeanor petty theft charges. Exactly what they should have charged this case as in the first place.
Instead, the DA’s office charged two counts of first degree burglary, apparently one for each room. I’m told that it was originally a single count, but Mr. van der Hoek added a second charge for the second room on the day of the preliminary hearing.
Mr. Berends is 21 years old, and he had no criminal history. He spent 93 days in jail and never waived time.
Based on the eventual plea agreement, the case that should have resolved early on, since the evidence of the theft was overwhelming, went all the way to trial. Took up four days of the jurors’ time. Required a number of hours of prosecution and defense work. And then resolved just as it should have resolved from the beginning – as a misdemeanor case.
This is a waste of time and resources – and for what?
Want to understand why our trial rate is so high? That’s it, in a nutshell. Yolo County has the highest per capita trial rate in the state, and it is primarily, in my view, because of prosecution decisions that are patently unreasonable like this one.
This case illustrates why Yolo County leads the way in per capita trials even though, as we have pointed out, it has a crime rate in the middle tier in California. And the other problem is that, while this overcharged case did not work out for the prosecution, sometimes they do. Yolo County is in the top five in the state in per capita incarceration rate.
—David M. Greenwald reporting