Monday Morning Thoughts: Life for Stealing a Package of Shredded Cheese

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A Poster Child Case for Over-Charging

What few remember about the case of Robert Ferguson is that, even after they dismissed the third strike, he still spent nearly eight years in prison for stealing a package of shredded cheese.  That means that the cost to the taxpayers for incarceration was at least $400,000.

This was one of the first cases the Vanguard covered under our Court Watch program.  The case had slipped by the media.  No one knew about this case before the Vanguard, but the Bee picked it up shortly thereafter, then the New York Times and ultimately the London Guardian.

With the pressure on, the Yolo DA’s office reversed themselves and agreed to strike his third strike and take it down to a two-strike case – still seven years, eight months.  For stealing cheese.

What didn’t get enough publicity is that Robert Ferguson had a long history of committing very petty crimes.  He had a rap sheet that was long and filled with small-time offenses.  No one bothered to try to get him help in something like a Mental Health Court.  Instead, they attempted to put him away for life in a system that would have been ill-equipped to treat him.

Clinton Parish from the Yolo County District Attorney’s office had originally argued in court filings that Mr. Ferguson was a candidate for using the three strikes law due in part to the five-part test.  The parts are: nature and circumstances of current offense, nature and circumstances of prior strikes, defendant’s background, defendant’s character, and defendant’s prospects.

Mr. Parish argued he was eligible for a third strike based on his background and prospects.  First, they argued that he was unemployed and unmarried.  He was a repeat offender and made no claims to education or job skills.  Furthermore, he was taking no responsibility for a substance abuse process.

Additionally, he had been in custody for 22 years, six months, and six days in the prior 27 years.  They argued that “defendant cannot function as a productive citizen in society.”  Moreover, “[Mr. Ferguson] made no effort whatsoever to becoming a law-abiding citizen.

According to a police report the Vanguard had acquired from Officer Matt Jameson of the Woodland PD, on Dec. 14, 2008, Officer Jameson responded to a grocery store located at 157 Main St. Upon arrival, he made contact with the Loss Prevention Officer from Nugget Market in Woodland.

The man allegedly saw an individual place $3.99 worth of shredded cheese into his pants and leave the store, not rendering proper payment. Mr. Ferguson was subsequently detained by Mr. Austin.  At the time of Mr. Ferguson’s arrest, he possessed $9.00, and would have been able to pay for the cheese he allegedly stole.

Oddly enough, he paid for everything else except for the cheese that was in his pants. When confronted by the Loss Prevention Officer, Ferguson attempted to flee and then was taken down to the ground. The Nugget Market worker described Ferguson as “embarrassed and remorseful.” The cheese had only cost $3.99, and he had nine dollars on him.

According to Deputy Public Defender Monica Brushia, Mr. Ferguson had been battling mental illness for a number of years.  He was attempting to control the ill effects of this mental disorder.  His mental disorder was responsible for his mania, depression, and mood instability. Because of his mental disorder problems he had acquired a substance abuse problem.

Mr. Ferguson was mentally ill.  What he needed was treatment, which he never received in the system.  Instead, he faced a district attorney’s office attempting to throw the book at him.

But eventually, with the publicity and pressure mounting on the DA’s office, they agreed to remove the final strike, turning it into a two-strikes case rather than a third-strike case.

As usual, it was damage control time for Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig.

He told the Davis Enterprise in 2010 that the law required his office to charge all of a criminal defendant’s known strikes.

Mr. Reisig then said that both the prosecutors and defense attorneys could seek the dismissal of prior strikes if they believed a case didn’t fall within the spirit of the three-strikes law.

He explained, “We make motions to dismiss strikes all the time.  We’re exercising our discretion in that area very reasonably.”

Naturally, Public Defender Tracie Olson disagreed. She told the paper that the Ferguson case was like several that had come through her office, with others facing life for vandalism and writing fraudulent checks.  In fact, we covered one where the defendant received 20 years for writing two bad checks.

Ms. Olson told the paper, “I find it hard to believe the voting public realized that these are the types of cases the three-strikes law would be applied to.”

And she was right.  Today the Robert Ferguson case could not have been charged as a three-strikes case for two reasons.

First, in 2012 the voters in Yolo County overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36 which modified California’s Three Strikes Law to require the third strike be a “serious or violent felony.”  That clause does not, however, apply to defendants previously convicted of rape, murder or child molestation.

Then, in 2014, the voters in Yolo County overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47 which reduced a number of felonies to misdemeanors, including the elimination of the loophole that allowed the DA to stack prior petty thefts to create a felony for petty theft with a prior.

In short, Robert Ferguson today would not have committed a felony and, even if he had, he would not have been eligible for a third strike.

Jeff Reisig likely hasn’t changed his thinking much on this, but the law has tied his hands.  He did not support Prop. 36 and he opposed Prop. 47.

—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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10 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Life for Stealing a Package of Shredded Cheese”

  1. Tia Will

    A few mental health diagnoses known to be associated with impulse control, such as petty theft.

    Impulse control disorders/Bipolar disorder/Attention Deficit Disorder/Addiction disorders/ Antisocial Personality disorder/ Borderline personality disorder

    These may be more effectively treated as mental health problems than as intentional criminality warranting prolonged imprisonment.

     

  2. Jeff M

    “Robert Ferguson had a long history of committing very petty crimes.  He had a rap sheet that was long and filled with small-time offenses.  No one bothered to try to get him help in something like a Mental Health Court.”

    Again we see this anti-law enforcement mentality and victimization of the criminal.  It is weird.  We also see the blaming of law-enforcement for enforcing laws and for failing to magically become something they are not.

    This is the essence of that half-circle thinking that my reverse-ideology friends are so prone to… getting to the point where they feel strongly and then stopping the logic train from connecting with the original question.  We can make victims out of every criminal this way.  Why do we even need law-enforcement?  We would be better off with trained psychologists and mental health doctors covering the streets to have a talk with those people committing crimes… because of course we know that their previous life of trauma and their unresolved childhood issues that explain their behavior.  If only they got some therapy they would no longer seek to harm others!

    I value challenges to law enforcement practices. Like all systems, it is prone to excess and corruption and in need to constant improvement.  However, the modern memes of social justice activism are freekin’ whacked and absurd.  Frankly, I think THEY are the ones that need the therapy.  A community would devolve into chaos without effective law enforcement.  Three-strikes laws developed specifically because communities previously experienced that chaos and rejected it.

    People should be VERY worried about the ideas of those that support Johansson for DA and what he represents.  Vote for Johansson if you welcome a community of criminal chaos.

  3. Eric Gelber

    Despite Jeff M’s over the top mischaracterizations of critics of law enforcement and his fawning obsession with the current DA, I do agree with him to an extent. Attributing all seemingly irrational behavior to mental illness and recommending mental health diversion and treatment for anyone with a suspected or actual mental disorder is stigmatizing, particularly to the overwhelming majority of people with mental disorders, who do not commit crimes. One can have a mental disorder and steal cheese without the two being related.

    The problem here is with the irrationality of our criminal justice system. Even a serial cheese thief should not face life, or even eight years, in prison. The fault is with the law and with those who blindly enforce it without exercising common sense and reasonable discretion. And yes, Jeff, that includes your idol, the district attorney.

  4. Tia Will

    Jeff and Eric

    Again we see this anti-law enforcement mentality and victimization of the criminal.”

    No. This is not what we have. I am not anti law enforcement. In some areas such as child abuse, and sexual molestation, you will search hard to find someone who is more in favor of separation from society than I am because of the ongoing danger represented by these types of criminals.

    However, our society has chosen in many cases not to differentiate mental illness from criminality. We do a fairly good job of differentiating physical illness from criminality. For instance we are able to accept that even an individual with a well controlled seizure disorder, with medical and legal right to drive, may get behind the wheel of a car and have a breakthrough seizure that causes harm to another. If their level of their meds was found to be within the therapeutic range, they would not be charged criminally for this physical ailment that caused their behavior even though they knew it was a slight possibility.

    We have not come to this point with mental illness. What I am asking for is proportionality. When the theft is of a candy bar, or bag of cheese and the individual is known, as this article states, to have a mental illness, why would we choose to inflict maximal punishment for minimal offense?  Why not give the same benefit of the doubt that we would for a physical illness?

    “”One can have a mental disorder and steal cheese without the two being related.”

    Yes, one certainly can. But our legal system is supposed to judge individual behavior, not collective behavior.The fact that others with a similar disorder may not steal cheese is not the point. The issue is what was the driving force behind the actions of this particular individual at this particular point in time assuming the premise of innocent until proven guilty. Guilt however, would have to be considered in the face of any existing known mental illness, and our DA consistently asks for the harshest interpretation possible.

    1. Howard P

      So, guess MH issues play no part in child abuse or sexual molestation…

      That said, stealing cheese, loaf of bread, pale in comparison to the other two…

      Yet one set should be treated as a MH issue, the other is just “criminal”?

  5. Jim Hoch

    “For instance we are able to accept that even an individual with a well controlled seizure disorder, with medical and legal right to drive, may get behind the wheel of a car and have a breakthrough seizure that causes harm to another. If their level of their meds was found to be within the therapeutic range, they would not be charged criminally for this physical ailment that caused their behavior even though they knew it was a slight possibility.” 

    Don’t be too sure about that from a legal point of view. They may very well be charged regardless of “therapeutic range” due to date of last seizure and concomitant conditions. 

    You may also find that people whose children were killed by a driver with a seizure may be less “accepting” than you seem to believe.

     

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