The Vanguard Week in Review: Court Watch (Jan. 4, 2021 – Jan. 8, 2021)

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Assembled by Evie Sun

The Vanguard is an online news forum that provides coverage of criminal justice reform and courts throughout California and the nation. In 2006, The Vanguard was known as the Davis Vanguard and began to cover Davis and Yolo County groundbreaking, local news concerning government and policy issues affecting the city, schools, and county. In the past few years, the online news source has been able to expand to Sacramento and the surrounding regions. 

Today, the team has grown to about 40 to 50 interns who monitor and report on live court proceedings in more than six different counties throughout California, from the State Capitol of Sacramento to the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California.

This first week of 2021, Jan. 4 through Jan. 8, The Vanguard interns covered stories from Sacramento, Yolo, Contra Costa, Alameda, Riverside and Fresno courthouses.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT

Reporter Dalia Bautista Rodriguez: Dept. 9 in Sacramento County consisted of continuing with the matters of the defendants’ cases and setting preliminary hearings. Only three preliminary hearings were set and are to take place in Dept. 9 on Jan. 13 and March 22 and Dept. 63 on Jan. 27 all during the morning session. Two bench warrants were issued due to failure to appear by the defendants and one of the defendants resides in New York and the case was set for March 25 at 8:30 a.m. in Dept. 9, hoping flights are less strict due to the pandemic.

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Dept. 15 consisted of a preliminary hearing and a motion to suppress. The defendant, David Breech, was found with three different baggies of heroin with 13.1 grams, 13.7 grams, and 7.85 grams, with 1.75 grams of methamphetamine, and 43 full pills and 22 half pills of alprazolam. He gave false information to a police officer by stating a false name. He had knowledge that he was on parole and had a warrant out. He entered a non-guilty plea and the motion to suppress was denied and a general time waiver was entered for Feb. 3 in Dept. 61.

Reporter Koda Slingluff: Despite several felony trials on calendar, Judge Ernest Sawtelle did not preside over any trials today (Jan. 6) in Dept. 61. Sawtelle expressed that Dept. 61 does not intend to have any trials until later in Jan. Some of the felony trials were rescheduled just a week or two ahead of today. Speaking with the bailiff, Sawtelle made a joke about how many postponements the court had seen. The bailiff said, “we have a busy day tomorrow” and Sawtelle replied teasingly that “we won’t be busy if we keep pushing them [the trials] off.”

Reporter Alana Bleimann: This week Alana attended court in Sacramento, Contra Costa, Fresno, and Yolo courts on both Monday and Wednesday, Jan. 4 and 6. She heard multiple preliminary hearings and motions to suppress. Most notably, on Monday, Jan. 4, in Sacramento Dept. 3, defendant Andrew Kowalski was charged by Judge James P. Arguelles on four separate counts including second-degree burglary and intent to commit larceny after “tunneling his way through” the back of a nail salon and attempting to steal money. District Deputy Attorney Emilee Divinagracia brought two officer witnesses to the stand to testify about what they had seen at the crime scene. The victim and her boyfriend called the police when they saw the defendant in their nail salon with weapons such as screwdrivers and bolt cutters. Officer Jorge Rodriguez was called and he arrested the defendant who went peacefully. Public defender Dina Stone argued that nothing was actually taken from the salon and that he was cooperative at the time of arrest. On the other hand, Divinagracia argued that he was on felony probation at the time and entered unlawfully into a locked building. Judge Arguelles set a trial date for early Feb..

Reporter Roxanna Jarvis: In Sacramento Dept 10, three preliminary hearings took place on the morning of Jan. 7. In one hearing, Defendant Marcus DeArmond was placed on a warrant for his arrest by Judge Ernest Sawtelle after he left his preliminary hearing over Zoom. DeArmond, charged with possession of a firearm as a prohibited person and possession of heroin and meth, was ordered to turn himself into Sacramento Sheriff custody after multiple prior charges and violations of parole. DeArmond became upset and kept speaking during the hearing, which eventually led to shouting. Judge Sawtelle made note that he had to mute the defendant over 10 times, showing even more reason why he was unfit for release and in his words, “a danger to society.” DeArmond then left the hearing and his public defender, Quoc To, pleaded with the Judge to not place a warrant. Judge Sawtelle agreed to remove it if DeArmond came back later that day, which was not made available.

Reporter Evie Sun: On Jan. 8, in Sacramento Dept. 61, Deputy District Attorney Brandon Jack requested that the court allow defendant Albino Nitollama to pursue mental health diversion. The judge stated that the court does not have an objection to allowing the defendant to pursue mental health diversion and is prepared to authorize it. The victim also did not have an objection, but prepared a victim impact statement to be presented in court. In her statement, she outlined her encounter with the defendant, who had unsuccessfully attempted to rob her car in the parking lot of her son’s daycare.

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The judge also presided over the case of defendant Douglas Thumm. District Attorney Monica Robinson stated that, on March 25, 2020, the defendant committed a felony violation in which he willfully and unlawfully caused injury and unjustifiable pain to a young Pitbull puppy by punching the puppy numerous times. The judge imposed a mandatory restitution fine of $10,000 and he also barred the defendant from owning or possessing an animal for the next 10 years. The defendant was released today on probation for the next two years.

Reporter Kathryn Wood: On Jan. 8 in Dept. 14, Defense Attorney Martin Tejeda sought to reject California Highway Patrol Officer Utodi Madu’s claims that Defendant Jim Wong violated Vehicle Code section 24409, stating that his high beams were present within 500 feet of oncoming traffic. After blinding lights startled Officer Madu, he pulled over Jim Wong at 3:30 a.m. on August 23, 2019. Wong drove a Toyota Sienna minivan in Downtown Sacramento approximately 200-300 feet away from Madu’s vehicle with intense, white lights glaring in Madu’s direction. After letting Wong know why he pulled him over, he testified that he peered at his dashboard and saw that there was a blue indicator light, signaling that his high beams were activated. However, Madu did not have a body cam, nor a dash cam to catch the incident. Wong stated that his high beams were not on, only his headlights. Wong, along with the other passenger in the car, John Nyugen, said that Officer Utodi only commented on the fact that his lights were very bright and blinding. Nyugen stressed that “When the officer told us that he was pulled over for bright headlights, I glanced over at the dashboard and saw that he didn’t have his high beams on.” During the cross-examination, assistant district attorney Jordan Pitcher had Nyugen and Wong testify that they consumed alcohol before getting into the car, however Wong declared that he was not impaired at the time because he just drank before operating the vehicle. Judge Bogert asserted that Officer Madu did not have to know for certain whether Wong’s high beams were actually on. Officer Madu was simply trying to conduct a further investigation of the situation by pulling over Wong for an enforcement stop. The Court sided with the prosecution, stating that Wong violated Vehicle Code section 24409, since his high beams were within 500 feet of oncoming traffic. Therefore, the prosecution met the burden to suppress the motion on the high beam violation.

Reporters Ramneet Singh and William McCurry: On Jan. 8, 2021 in Dept. 5 of the Sacramento Superior Court, William McCurry and Ramneet Singh sat in on a competency hearing that sought to determine probable cause in an alleged robbery. The prosecution provided two witnesses, police officers who were knowledgeable of the alleged robbery. Primary focuses of the arguments revolved around intent, the claim of right, and mental health issues of the defendant. The judge concluded that there was sufficient evidence to treat this as a case of robbery and sufficient evidence for guilt. She determined that if the defendant was returned to competency, he would be eligible for a preliminary hearing. With the submission of a report, she referred the defendant toward mental health resources. The defendant questioned why they believed him to have mental health issues and he refused medication. The Dept. 5 live-stream seemed to stop after this.

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT

Reporter Koda Slingluff: On Jan. 5, Honorable Terri Mockler presided over several preliminary hearings and pre trials in Dept. 27. Interestingly, there were more female defendants than typically observed in a regular court date — with about half the defendants being female.

FRESNO COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT

Reporter Roxanna Jarvis: On Jan. 6, Fresno Superior Court Dept. 11 was quite empty. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak at Fresno County Jail, defendants in-custody were in quarantine and unable to appear in court for their hearings. Judge Glenda Allen-Hill granted continuances for those cases. Even those not in-custody failed to appear or had their cases continued. Judge Allen-Hill ordered a number of bench warrants as prosecutor Tiffany Pack called out her cases where she was not able to contact the defendant. The stay-at-home order issued by Governor Newsom gave sufficient cause for Judge Allen-Hill to continue the cases for future dates, even though the defendants did not give notice for their absence.

YOLO COUNTY SUPREME COURT

Reporter Macy Lu: On Thursday, Jan. 7 in Yolo Superior Court Dept. 14, Judge David Rosenberg presided over a handful of brief arraignments, order hearings, and preliminaries. To summarize a few cases, defendant Travis Birmingham who was convicted for inflicting corporal injury on a child was put on 3 years informal probation and required to take a 52 week course on domestic violence. Jose Sandoval Corona Jr. applied to have a mental health evaluation that was still pending. His attorney confirmed he has also recently completed an outpatient treatment program.

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Most notable out of all the cases Judge Rosenberg heard was Larry James Tillman Junior’s case. Tillman has been in custody since September 18 and is still waiting for hospital mental health treatment. When he appeared in court before Yolo Superior Court Judge Ronald Richardson, he was reported to be number 121 on the waitlist and was scheduled to be transferred to the hospital on April 2, 2021. According to Brenda Ray, a representative of the California’s Dept. of State Hospitals, Tillman is currently only 114 on the waitlist and is scheduled to be transferred on April 23. Upon learning how long Tillman has been in custody without proper treatment, Judge Rosenberg exclaimed that his situation is “unacceptable under any standards in a civilized society.” A  hearing for “why the court should not hold the director and the Dept. in contempt” has been set for 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 21 in the same Dept.. Judge Rosenberg underscored that he expects the director herself to appear for the hearing.

Reporter Lauren Smith: On Jan. 6 in Dept. 1, defendant Scott Ekoniak was charged with vehicular manslaughter at his arraignment hearing in Yolo County Superior Court Wednesday afternoon. On the evening of Sunday Jan. 3, Ekoniak allegedly hit and killed a 66-year-old man who was walking along the highway on Olive Drive before driving away. The defendant was arrested in Sacramento on Monday, Jan. 4 by Davis Police. At his arraignment, Ekoniak stated that “the guy ran into me.” Due to the severity of the allegations, Judge Tom Dyer set bail at $175,000 and scheduled the defendant’s preliminary hearing on Feb. 23 in Dept. 11 at 1:30 p.m.

ALAMEDA COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT

Reporter Lauren Smith: On Jan. 7 in Dept. 702, Defendant Antoine Ellis faced multiple counts of weapon charges including unlawful possession of semi-automatic weapons, unlawful possession of ammunition and carrying a loaded firearm while committing a felony. Judge Barbara Dickinson set bail at $325,000 due to the multiple charges, and the defendant’s criminal history that includes a felony conviction of carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle and a conviction of second degree robbery. At his arraignment hearing, Ellis was heard stating to himself, “That’s crazy. Those firearms wasn’t mine.” The statement was not heard by the judge, as others talked over him.

RIVERSIDE COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT

Reporter Mia Machado: On Jan. 8 in Riverside County Superior Court Dept. 3R, court convened to review a motion for a mandatory 290 test of the victim, or an HIV test. The defendant – Epifanio Rojas – is HIV positive, but was sentenced back in March of 2011. After reviewing the facts of the case, Judge Harold Hopp pointed out that given the case is over 10 years old, the defendant may have contracted the virus at any point after the crime occurred. Since there is no documented baseline health assessment of Rojas from when the case occurred, there is no way to indicate that he was HIV positive at the time. Additionally, Judge Hopp pointed out that since there was no allegation of transference of fluids during his case, the test is likely unnecessary. Following this discussion, the court ruled not to order an HIV test for the 10-year-old case.

CA SUPREME COURT

Reporter Macy Lu: On Tuesday Jan. 5, the CA Supreme Court heard a long-awaited oral argument for the case of re Kenneth Humphrey between the CA Attorney General’s office and Mr. Humphrey’s representatives. The oral argument was originally set for December 2019 before being pushed to Feb. 2020 and finally Jan. 5, 2021. Humphrey’s case criticizes the state’s cash bail system inspired the passage of the Senate Bill 10 in 2018 that attempted to overturn that system but was eventually shot down by Prop 25 in last November’s election.

Three issues were debated on Tuesday. First, should courts consider a defendant’s financial status in setting bail? Second, should a trial court consider public and victim safety when setting bail? Third, which provisions in the California Constitution allow bail to be denied for noncapital cases? Regarding the first point, Solicitor General Joshua A. Klein from the Attorney General’s office stated that to disregard a defendant’s financial status when setting bail is to unjustly detain the poor while indirectly freeing the wealthy.

As for the second point, Klein raising bail is not an “appropriate way” to address public safety concerns. On the third issue, Klein stated that Article I Section 28 of the California Constitution, amended by Prop 9 by 2008 voters, rightfully governs the denial of bail. Representing Mr. Humphrey are Daniel S. Volchok and Alec Karakatsanis. Regarding the first point, Volchok emphasized that indigence should not seal someone’s fate as a detainee as well as the need to apply strict scrutiny to a court’s decision on detainment.

On the second point, Volchok underscored that it is detention not bail that protects public safety so therefore, a court should not consider public safety when imposing bail. Karakatsanis spoke on the third point, arguing that Article I Section 12 of the California Constitution should govern the denial of bail. He also insisted that reconciliation between Section 28 and Section 12 can be harmonized since Section 28 does “set forth specific circumstances in which a person can be detained” while Section 12 does.

Evie Sun is a third-year student at UCLA, studying Sociology. She is from the East Bay Area.


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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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