By Celeste Campbell
In Department Fourteen, a trial was avoided at the eleventh hour. Jesus Hernandez was facing trial for vandalism with damage under $100, a misdemeanor. Mr. Hernandez is charged in this criminal court for damage to a neighbor’s fence, what many would consider a property dispute. Today’s hearing was regarding the pre-trial processes for evidence, known as motions in limine. Motions in limine help a trial run smoothly so there are not disputes over evidence as they occur. Instead the rules are set out at the beginning so both sides are aware of what they can or cannot discuss.
During the defense attorney’s motion in limine, one of the requests was to dismiss this case, again. The defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jared Rudolph, argued that this issue does not belong in criminal court. The defense also emphasized that Mr. Hernandez had made improvements in his life since the time of his arrest and the issues with the neighbor do not persist. The judge reserved a ruling until after the lunch break on the dismissal.
After the lunch break, court resumed with the judge speaking to the complaining witness. Mr. Lam, the neighbor who called police. They discussed the day of the incident and the extent of the actual damage to the fence. The judge asked to review the video of the incident, as captured by Mr. Lam’s video surveillance system. After reviewing the video and contemplating the complaining witness’ statement, the judge asked for the attorneys and the witness to come into chambers. After almost an hour behind closed doors, Deputy Public Defender Attorney Rudolph emerged to talk with Mr. Hernandez. From the gallery, it was not clear exactly what the negotiation was about, but Mr. Hernandez accepted the offer to settle this case.
When all parties returned to the courtroom the settlement was read on to the record by the judge. Mr. Hernandez agreed to pay $200 to Mr. Lam for the damage to his fence, to go to a substance abuse treatment program, and to stay away from the property. The judge ordered all parties to return in 30 days to check Mr. Hernandez’s progress. Mr. Hernandez thanked the court and was obviously grateful for the justice that was done today.
From the audience’s perspective, it was unclear how this case made it to trial in the first place. The damage seemed so minimal and the dispute was not dangerous or even escalating. The answer would come from the People, represented by an assistant district attorney and an attorney who works for a private law firm. This second attorney is part of a common practice in the district attorney’s office. The attorney working for the private firm is technically donating their time for free in exchange for this trial experience, a useful tool for an inexperienced trial attorney.
This program aids the district attorney’s office in their workload. One of the reasons Mr. Hernandez’s charge wasn’t dismissed may be for this reason. This private attorney tries the case as their own, under the supervision of the district attorney’s office, and may not be as willing to dismiss this case because they want the experience of the trial. From the audience’s opinion, this training process does not make much sense in criminal proceedings. When a citizen’s freedom rests in the hands of someone who is looking for trial experience, and not justice, it is unclear that this practice is fair to the people subjected to this training.