This Week Vanguard Court Watch March 22, 2021 – March 26, 2021

Compiled by Lovepreet Dhinsa

The Vanguard is an online news forum that provides coverage of criminal justice reform and the courts throughout California and the nation. In 2006, the Davis Vanguard began to cover groundbreaking local news concerning government and policy issues affecting cities, schools, and communities in Davis and Yolo Counties.
The Vanguard now covers courts and other news in Sacramento and its surrounding regions. The team includes 40 to 50 interns who report on live court proceedings in more than six different counties throughout California, including the State Capitol of Sacramento, the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Southern California.
This week the Vanguard interns and news reporters watched hearings in Sacramento, Yolo, Fresno, Riverside and Minneapolis courthouses (jury selection in of ex-cop Derek Chauvin, who was brought to trial for the murder of George Floyd). The following are a few cases observed this week:

Sacramento County Superior Court

Roselyn Poommai: On Monday, March 22, Roselyn witnessed multiple cases in Sacramento Dept. 41 and 42. In Dept. 42, Tina Atiles had allegedly stolen a vehicle owned by the victim. After noticing his missing truck, the victim had reported the stolen vehicle. An officer on duty spotted the stolen vehicle in question and conducted a traffic stop to find the defendant driving the car with a screwdriver in the ignition. Upon questioning, Atiles claimed that she had bought the car from a seller, but the given name did not match with the victim, the vehicle’s original owner. Additionally, the victim had not permitted anyone else to drive the vehicle and had possession of the vehicle’s keys. The judge ruled that there was sufficient cause to believe she had stolen the vehicle and set Atile’s next trial date on June 2, 2021.

Also, in Dept. 42, defendant Fabian Garcia was being charged on multiple counts, one being police evasion. In 2019, a detective in an unmarked vehicle passed by Garcia’s vehicle during traffic and spotted cracked damage across the entire windshield. In an attempt to conduct a traffic stop, the officer noted that Garcia proceeded to speed off in flight, driving on a sidewalk in the process. However, the defense argues that the lack of vehicle markings on the patrol car made the defendant unaware that the officer was conducting a stop on the defendant. The case is to be continued.

In Dept. 41, defendant Joseph Weatherspoon appeared in court for a motion to suppress evidence obtained during an allegedly warrantless search. Though Weatherspoon was initially pulled over due to his darkly tinted windows, he ended up being searched and detained after retrieving and presenting .5 ounces of marijuana from his jean pocket. After the stop, the officer subsequently patted down the defendant, detained him in the backseat of his patrol vehicle, and proceeded to search his car despite the defendant openly rejecting any search.

During that vehicle search, the officers located marijuana blunts and a concealed firearm under the car’s backseat. The Deputy District Attorney argued that there was reasonable cause to search since the marijuana was in an open container, as ruled in People v. McGee (2020). In response, the judge concluded that the defendant only faced a fine infraction, at most, for the possession of .5 ounces of marijuana and that the search was warrantless and violated his fourth amendment. As a result, the motion was granted, the case was dismissed, and the defendant’s bail had been exonerated.

Ankita Joshi: On Wednesday, March 22, Sacramento County Superior Court Dept. 27 had a preliminary hearing for Defendant Shauna Giffin, who was arrested for shooting and killing her boyfriend in self-defense. The preliminary hearing consisted of the questioning of four of the main responders at the scene of the crime after Giffin had called and reported the shooting. Throughout the questioning of these responders, it was found that the victim had participated and kept Nazi paraphernalia, and had a history of violent behavior. However, it was also found that Giffin had made threats to the victim in the past. After an evaluation of all the submitted evidence, Judge Steven M. Gevercer maintained a holding order on the count of open murder, and sustained that the bail should be kept at $1 million. A jury trial date was set for May 10 at 8:45 a.m. in Dept. 9.

Ned Meiners: On Wednesday, March 22, Ned began the day in Sacramento Superior Court, Dept. 9, which had three preliminary hearings scheduled. However, two rescheduled to a later date, and the defense attorney was not present for the third. The court went on a break and did not return. He moved to Dept. 60, which had a very full schedule. When he first arrived the case of Ramitesh Kumar was called and the prosecutor had not yet read the bail motion his attorney had submitted. They agreed to push the hearing back till after the midmorning break, however the court expressed concern that if they waited there would not be room for him among the in-custody defendants, and if they’d be able to maintain social distancing protocols with the amount of defendants present awaiting their hearing. Ultimately it was decided there was room.

Ivory Vann had a bench warrant that he stated he had already posted bail for. The prosecutor suggested he turn himself in and then once in custody see if he was bailed out. Vann and his attorney were hesitant to do this for obvious reasons and suggested instead he go to Aladdin Bail Bonds, his bond company, and bring a representative with him. The experience was frustrating for Vann as he lives in Monterey and had already appeared at several court dates in Sacramento.

At a sentencing hearing for Tony Hazard on charges of domestic battery, the victim read a statement that explained the effect of the incident on herself and her children. She explained that it was hard for her to have a normal day and was paranoid whenever there was a knock on the door. She said she was certain the defendant would attempt to contact her whenever he was released, regardless of whatever type of stay away order the court applied. She stated she did not want him in jail forever, but wanted peace of mind. The court gave Hazard the harshest sentence possible, 364 days in county jail and four years parole.

Finally, Ramitesh Kumar’s case was heard. He charged with attempted murder for pursuing his former girlfriend and a friend of hers in a car chase and firing a gun at them over ten times. The victim had written a statement asking for leniency which Kumar’s attorney included in their bail motion. The court disregarded the victims request and held the defendant without bail. Ned wrote an article on this hearing.

Roselyn Poommai: On Wednesday, March 23, Roselyn sat in on multiple cases in Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 9 and 33. The court accepted multiple agreements to enter 60-day waivers for defendants in Dept. 9. In one case, a public defender passionately advocated for the court to shift the defendant’s remand date after the defendant had failed to abide by his level four probation terms. According to the public defender, defendant Joshua Ledbetter had been unable to contact the probation office and the attorney himself due to personal struggles. Ledbetter had been assaulted and outed from his home by a family member, lost his phone and communication services, and had been homeless for some time. The judge recognized the severity of his struggles and attributed the additional chance to abide by his terms to the attorney’s advocacy. Ledbetter’s matters will continue on April 23.

In Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 33, defendant Maurice Clark had allegedly assaulted a victim with his fists, a plastic broom, a 15-pound weight plate, and a metal ladder. However, the judge and counsel struggled to compile a coherent story after the victim’s testimony was filled with discrepancies and memory distortions. The defense attorney asked the court to reduce Clark’s felony charge to a misdemeanor and the basis that the gaps in witness testimonies did not provide sufficient evidence for a holding order.

During the cross-examination, the DA inquired about the victim’s mental health diagnoses and his current medication, though was unable to prove that the victim had an underlying diagnosis. The judge disagreed with the DA’s evaluation and concluded that defendant Clark could not receive a felony reduction due to the severity of thrusting a 15-pound weight at someone’s chest and upper body. Maurice Clark’s jury trial date is set for May 17, 2021.

Derrick Pal: On Tuesday, March 23, Derrick witnessed defendant Mathew Carpenter who was held to answer in Sacramento County Superior Court for a shocking escalation through brute force of hurling a woman out of his trailer and into a ditch after he was recorded illegally dumping concrete. Defendant Carpenter was charged in a preliminary hearing with one count of robbery with enhancing allegation of inflicting great bodily injury, and one count of assault by means likely to inflict great bodily injury.

On Sept. 12, 2020, at 10:12 a.m., Deputy Sheriff Brian Kraatz was dispatched to an assault call near the intersection of Happy Lane and Kiefer Boulevard located within Sacramento county limits. When responding to the scene, Deputy Kraatz noticed the victim who appeared severely injured and leaning against her vehicle. The victim explained how the altercation began when she recorded the defendant who was illegally dumping concrete, and this caused him to become enraged and start cussing.

After eventually driving away, the victim continued to drive along the same road, where the defendant ended up turning his truck and attached trailer in such a way that forced the victim to stop her vehicle. The defendant exited his truck holding a metal trailer hitch, approached the passenger side of the victim’s vehicle, and proceeded to shift her vehicle into park and take her cell phone and car keys, throwing them into the back of his trailer.

Deputy Kraatz stated that “essentially, she would be stuck there on the road without the keys to drive her car, and without her phone to call anybody for help,” so the victim climbed into the trailer to attempt to retrieve her items. The defendant climbed the trailer after her, lifted her above his head, and threw the victim down outside of the trailer and into a ditch on the side of the road, where she eventually had to be hospitalized. Judge Steven Gevercer found that there is probable cause to believe the charged offenses were committed by defendant Carpenter and he is to be held to answer. A jury trial is scheduled for June 14 at 8:45 a.m. in Dept. 9.

Alexander Ramirez: On Tuesday, March 23, 2021, Alexander witnessed several continuances in Dept. 2 and 61. The most notable case was one where the defendant was arrested because he missed court after he was given a Cruz waiver. He did say that he understood the consequences of not coming to court, but there was no one to take care of his kids. His lawyer also tried to argue, “Life happened.”

The judge still didn’t budge and gave the defendant a middle term of four years. Per the judge, he has thought twice about giving Cruz waivers since he noticed the defendant usually doesn’t come back, so the fact that it was proven with this case made him think twice about the sentencing.

Michael Wheeler: On Wednesday, March 24, in Dept. 45, Michael saw defendant Blain Bowman appear for a preliminary hearing relating to a drunk driving charge from June 2019. Bowman crashed his car into the garage of a house near the corner of U and P Streets in Sacramento, going about 10 mph above the speed limit. At the scene police officer Mark Williams performed a horizontal eye nystagmus test to determine if Bowman was sober. Later, at UC Davis Medical Center a phlebotomist performed a blood test on Bowman which determined that his blood alcohol content was .14.

However, Bowman’s defense team sharply contested whether use of the test as evidence was permissible, as they argued that Bowman had not consented to the test. Bowman suffers from neurodegeneration with brain ion accumulation. He is unable to speak at length, instead relying upon an iPad with a voice app which allows him to speak. The defense and prosecution disagreed over the actual narrative of events at the hospital, and deputy district attorney Emilee Divinagracia called into question Bowman’s credibility as a witness, saying that he “has every motive to lie.” Judge Kara Ueda ultimately ruled that use of the blood test as evidence as permissible and that she believed Bowman to be guilty of the counts he was charged with. Bowman will face trial in July.

Koda Slingluff: On Wednesday, March 24, Koda was in Dept. 61, where Judge Michael Sweet oversaw a number of arraignments and trial readiness conferences. Most notably was the trial readiness conference of Lakquan Solomon, a suspect in the 2017 murder of Brandon Campbell in Sacramento. A key witness, who had previously been unavailable for communication with attorneys, is now in custody and available.

This witness is also pregnant. Prosecution and defense struggled to agree on a trial date which would allow defense to communicate with the witness while keeping her in custody for the shortest amount of time possible. In a different case, another citizen, Matthew McPheeters appeared to request that the court modify his probation, modify his former plea to ‘not guilty,’ and erase a felony charge. McPheeters requested this so that, “in the future [he] can look for employment closer to [his] children” who live out of state. Judge Sweet was sympathetic to McPheeters’ requests, and said he would sign “both forms in front of [him]” to help McPheeters.

One in-custody defendant was also released today. Sonnita Dixon, who was temporarily declared incompetent, was deemed competent again today by the court. Dixon had already served more than enough time for her property damage charge. As such, she was granted release.

Ned Meiners: On Wednesday, March 24, Ned began the morning in Sacramento Superior Court, Dept. 9. There were several preliminary hearings scheduled but few occurred. Marmelstein withdrew his guilty plea, as he was changing representation. Brodski’s attorney motioned for 1358 to assess the defendant’s mental competency. Nazir Karzai pleaded to a domestic violence charge. He received 60 days at the sheriff’s work project, a year of parole and a stay away order. The court quickly went through its docket and when they finished he transferred to Dept. 60.

In Dept. 60, Ned saw pleas on several other domestic violence charges. Christian Echeveste, Brennan Funicello, Dana Gomez and Michael Pina all pleaded no contest to PC 273.5 (a) in separate hearings. It was common for sentences to be served through the sheriff’s work project or through batterers treatment. It was also notable that two inmates Edward Alarcon and Hurties Harris were not at their hearings because they were being held in isolation. Whether this was related to COVID or not is unknown.

Hongyi Wen: On Wednesday, March 24, in Dept. 30, Hongyi Wen witnessed a motion hearing involving defendant Kenya Turner. The motion is to suppress evidence, and the public defender Christian Rowland argues that the video captured by police body cam should be cut off immediately. Defendant Turner on Oct. 17, 2020 was found in a plaza in front of a Chipotle restaurant to be passed out. Fire Dept. was contacted first for a medical emergency, but determined that Turner might be passed out because of alcohol. The Police Dept. and Officer Lucas Eatchel were contacted for a possible DUI. Officer Eatchel arrived at the scene and approached the defendant with one other officer. Officer Eatchel woke the defendant up, and asked him some preliminary questions. Officer Eatchel detected the smell of alcohol. After conducting the first field sobriety test, defendant Turner was uncooperative and was placed under arrest. During the hearing, DDA Seuylemezian showed the 13 minutes video of Officer Eatchel’s body cam.

DDA Seuylemezian denied the motion to suppress this evidence since officers Eatchel was asking preliminary questions to determine whether the defendant was intoxicated or not. If the defendant was being held in detention, officers can ask questions before reading suspects Miranda rights in order to investigate crime and make further determination to arrest. DUI investigation does not require Miranda Rights to be read. Public defender Rowland argued that the law requires defendants to be read Miranda rights whether he was actually under arrest or not. Officer Eatchel had probable cause for a DUI arrest based on the facts that he gathered, so the video should not be used as evidence. Judge James E. McFetridge ruled the motion to be denied, and the next trial date is on April 5.

Alexander Ramirez: On Wednesday, March 24, in Dept. 60, Alexander saw a few interesting cases. While the stream started fairly slow with rescheduling, arraignments and further proceedings, it quickly picked up. Throughout the stream there were three similar cases to one another yet with entirely different bails posted. The first case involved the defendant beating the victim and threatening the victim with a gun with very explicit quotes used in my article. This culminated in a standoff with the police, to which the victim began crying and eventually stepping out of the house.

The next case had a defendant threaten the victim with a knife, slash at them, and beat them. This defendant also brandished a gun and shot at the victim two times while the victim was fleeing, to which the police found the spent cartridges on the driveway. The final similar case had the defendant threaten the victim with a knife as well, but with the risk of children as collateral damage. The police were called by a teacher on the Zoom call for the kids’ class. The bails for these cases were set to one million dollars, no bail, and two hundred thousand dollars respectively. The first two cases had prior offenses, but the last case was a return on 13 bench warrants, so I have a bit of trouble seeing how bail is determined.

Stephanie Boulos: On Thursday, March 25, several interesting criminal cases were heard, ranging from domestic violence to felonies involving live ammunition. Judge Tedmon saw the very interesting case of Defendant Aguilar early in the afternoon, where the defendant was charged with four different felonies for the malicious and repeated placement of homemade pipe bombs and even a zip gun on an elementary campus in Sacramento. The defendant who had previously been released after posting a $25,000 bail was taken back into custody with a new bail set at $150,000.

Another defendant was seen by Judge Tedmon, Defendant Diaz, who was charged with a felony for false imprisonment and fraud, and his hearing was scheduled for early May. Defendant Lopez was charged with a failure to obey the laws of his probation and the possession of ammunition but was later released after the court realized these incidents occurred outside of the time limit of his probation sentence of two years.

Then Defendant Hood was charged with a felony for the injury of a cohabitant, and the mother of one out of the 10 children he has. Defendant was said to have strangled the mother for three minutes, along with punching her in the face several times, and also contained a past case of domestic violence where he pushed his victim to the ground three times and threw her against a wall.

Lovepreet Dhinsa: On Friday, March 26, Lovepreet watched several preliminary hearings and continuances in Sacramento Superior Courts and Fresno Superior Courts. In one particular case, in Dept. 62 of Sacramento, the Judge ruled against a defendant, who had 5 violations of unemployment insurance code. The defendant made false statements of identity and knowingly did not disclose facts. The defendant had filed for unemployment wrongfully under 5 different names, and he had received over $219,000 in aid from EDD. The defendant also had a prior strike of a burglary, which doubled his sentencing to 9 years and 4 months.

Kathryn Wood: On Friday, March 26, 2021, in Dept. 4, the accused represented himself Friday morning before the Sacramento Superior Court. The accused reported that he was “assaulted and battered by hotel staff” at the Fairfield Inn in Sacramento. He claimed that he has video evidence of individuals involved in the incident on his cell phone, however, he does not have access to his devices in jail. The accused added that he had left his abusive parents, who filed a missing person report claiming that he was “possibly suicidal” and “at risk.”

The accused asserted that he believed his parents were involved and contacted the hotel staff. Furthermore, he mentioned that the “hotel staff were the aggressors.” When Judge Steve White attempted to make suggestions about being represented by a counsel, the accused replied that all counsels would not “paint law enforcement in a bad light,” which was critical for his case.

William McCurry: On Friday, March 26, Will was in Sacramento Superior Court Dept. 16 and overheard a preliminary hearing for defendant Brandon Black. Black was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and causing serious bodily injury. Black and the victim got into an altercation outside a liquor store where they began fighting and then it led to Black stabbing the victim. Deputy District Attorney Alison Weider presented four witnesses, which included the victim and four officers that work for the Sacramento Sheriff’s Dept., in front of Judge Delbert Oros. Black was identified in court by the victim and every officer who testified for Weider.

Fresno County Superior Court

Hongyi Wen: On Friday, March 26, in Dept. 20, Hongyi witnessed numerous continuous cases, but there is one sentencing hearing involving defendant Val Jean Smith that was particularly interesting. Smith is on pretrial release and she appeared in the courtroom today. Smith had previously pleaded no contest to multiple felony charges and a misdemeanor charge. Court had indicated 180 days of probation, but the probation note said that Smith is not eligible for probation because of numerous medical issues and is on multiple medicine.

Since the last hearing Smith was told to be prepared with sentencing today and provide doctors notes about medical reasons, but the defense attorney Laura Boyd and DDA Douglas DiCicco point out that they did not receive any documents from Smith. Smith argued in court that she received the letter yesterday and called her defense attorney Boyd yesterday, but she never picked up. Regardless, the judge reviewed the new medical notes and documents that Smith newly provided, and ruled the custody status remain unchanged. Smith is placed on formal probation for three years, and she is serving 180 days in custody.

Minnesota – Derek Chauvin Murder Trial

William McCurry: On Monday, March 22, Will sat in on the jury selection of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. Today, the fourteenth juror was seated with the opening arguments a week away scheduled for Monday, March 29. The juror seated today is a social worker who works with a variety of mental health patients and makes sure they are safe and stay living in the community. Similar to the rest of the jurors who came into questioning, she heard of the $27 million settlement, showing how difficult it is to not see media coverage for this case. Despite the fact that she saw the media coverage, she claimed she can put it aside and be fair and impartial on this jury.

Lovepreet Dhinsa: On Tuesday 23, Lovepreet saw day 12 of the Derek Chauvin trial, in which the 15th alternate juror was selected. There were two candidates who were interviewed. Both candidates were familiar with the $27 million settlement. The first candidate relayed that he would not be able to overcome the ways that he was affected by the protests and he was excused. The second candidate was approved, even though he held opinions both for and against the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Blue Lives Matter Movement. The candidate had mentioned that he did not hold positive views of someone taking a political stand during games, such as kneeling, and also was against defunding the police. He also stated that he thought that the Black Lives Matter Movement was a contributing factor for the rioting and looting happening this summer, and that which created a negative impact on the community. Despite this, the candidate was approved as an alternate and opening arguments are set to begin next Monday.

William McCurry: On Wednesday, March 24, Will sat in the Derek Chauvin jury selection for the death of George Floyd. Judge Peter Cahill seated the 15th juror today to ensure that there will be 14 seated jurors on Monday, March 29 when opening arguments are scheduled to start. This juror that was selected today is a male who is an accountant by trade who is married and competitive. He has a somewhat negative impression of Chauvin but claims to be able to put all opinions aside and be a fair and impartial juror on this jury.

Yolo County Superior Court

Macy Lu: On the morning of Monday March 22 in Yolo Superior Court Dept. 8, Judge Peter M. Williams presided over a number of pre-trial readiness conferences and pre-hearing conferences. The day began with a review of a mental competence report on Calvin Leroy Lias. Though the doctor assigned Lias to a treatment program, his public defender, Aram Davtyan, as well as Deputy District Attorney David Robbins requested Judge Williams re-order another evaluation on the basis that the current report was “lacking in analysis,” “biased,” and even “farcical.” DDA Robbins even joked that he had hoped to argue on the report, but given the scarcity of information it contained, that would be impossible. Judge Williams, after glossing over the report, agreed with the two counsels. Another report review date has been set for April 19 in Dept. 7 at 9 a.m.

Following Lias’s case, several other cases were scheduled for pre-hearing conferences either in the months of April or May also in Dept. 7. One defendant, Jose Perez Meza, needed the court to assign him a public defender; however, some confusion arose after Public Defender Richard VanZandt pointed out that typically defendants are assigned public defenders the day that their previous one was relieved. DDA Robbins, who was the prosecuting attorney for Meza’s case, noted that Meza had wanted to consult with his wife about hiring a private attorney.

Meza then clarified that actually he would like to be assigned a public defender instead since he had spent all his money on a private attorney prior to his previous public defender who was relieved. At that point, VanZandt offered to take up Meza’s case, and Judge Williams set the pre-hearing conference for April 9 at 9 a.m.

Ankita Joshi: On Wednesday, March 24, Yolo County Superior Court Dept. 8 dealt with a lot of continuances and trial readying conferences. Judge Peter M. Williams covered for Judge David W. Reed, which caused some confusion when setting up the court calendar for future proceedings. One particular case caused some added confusion, as Defendant Edwards appeared in custody on a $100,000 bail. The consolidated complaint against Edwards included 13 counts against him, to which Edwards pleaded not guilty to.

However, as Judge Williams started to set up a preliminary hearing for him, Edwards complained that he had extremely high blood pressure, and had not been able to get any medical attention within the prison for the last two weeks due to lack of medical personnel. Judge Williams advised Defense Attorney William Trinidad to set up a confidential meeting with Edwards to reach a conclusion to the medical issues present. However, it was noted that the prison had been having trouble setting up confidential meetings.

Lovepreet Dhinsa is a junior undergraduate student at the University of San Francisco, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Politics with a minor in Legal Studies. She has a passion for criminal defense law, and strives to go to law school to fight for indigent clients. As such, she is also involved in her university’s mock trial program and student government.

 


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