By Julian Verdon
SACRAMENTO – Justin O’Neil appeared to be on the proverbial “straight and narrow” path to recovery—and then an old warrant showed up and he found himself in Sacramento County Superior Court Wednesday on two burglary charges.
When he was released pretrial early this year, he maintains he began to start over. He went to treatment for his heroin addiction, started taking medication, undertook counseling, and got a job making pizzas. He set forth on this path to recovery while also caring for a young daughter with his girlfriend.
But, as he was rebuilding his life, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant he did not know about while sitting on his front porch. That release nearly a year ago wasn’t a dismissal, it turns out—he claims he never heard from the court and it turned into a warrant for his arrest.
Assistant Public Defender Teresa Huang asked Judge Michael Savage to release O’Neil on his own recognizance.
Judge Savage wanted to know the district attorney’s position on releasing O’Neil.
“The first residential burglary did have the victim come home in the middle of it. So, when she gets home, she sees a truck she doesn’t recognize, comes inside, and encounters the defendant in one of the bedrooms in her home. He doesn’t try and hurt her or anything, but she tries to keep him in the house, and he ends up fleeing. And then he comes back later to apologize to her for breaking in,” stated Deputy District Attorney Cody Winchester.
Winchester also said the second home burglary happened two weeks after the first. The judge asked if Winchester made an offer to the defense, to which the deputy district attorney replied that it would be two years in prison if the defense were to take the plea.
Initially, the judge was inclined not to release O’Neil. He thought O’Neil was a danger to society since O’Neil broke into a home and encountered the homeowner, which did not deter him two weeks later, when he decided to break into another home. He believed O’Neil showed a disregard for other people’s safety.
But as Judge Savage finished speaking, O’Neil interjected and asked to say something. The judge told O’Neil that he could but that his attorney would likely advise against it. Huang asked O’Neil if there was something she did not cover so far in the hearing.
“No. Actually, I just wanted to say I am not the same person I was when I am on drugs. That’s it. I was blacked out,” replied O’Neil.
“I appreciate that,” replied Judge Savage, “A lot of people do stupid things on drugs and off drugs. But what would be concerning to me, sir, is the fact you ran into a homeowner in a burglary. I can never understand for the life of me how someone can get up the nerve to go into someone else’s house and try to steal things.”
Judge Savage kept to his original statement, that O’Neil would be inclined to break the law again since he broke into two residences on separate occasions and had a drug addiction.
However, Huang asked if she could say one last thing.
“You may,” responded Judge Savage.
“In a way, [O’Neil ] was [released on his own recognizance]. He was booked twice; he was released twice and with no court date, nothing, and no written instructions to do anything else. Until he got arrested on the arrest warrant—not a bench warrant—he was never arrested again. And on his own volition, with the support of his family, got himself into a program, got himself a job, and really, on his own, turned his life around without being mandated by the court,” argued Huang.
She later went on to say, “I understand the court’s concern that he is a danger to the community…. But this occurred in December, and we are now in September, and for nine months, he not only kept out of trouble, but he also did everything he could to stay out of trouble. I think if anybody can show that he would not do this again, especially now that he’s in a program and hopefully still employed, it would be Mr. O’Neil.”
Judge Savage then sat and mulled over this new information for some time before agreeing with Huang, saying that she persuaded him. He then told O’Neil that his attorney went out on a limb for him and he’d better not “screw it up.”
The judge then ordered O’Neil to be released pretrial but to come back to court in October—ordering him to keep out of trouble and stay in his rehab program.
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