By Sophia Barberini
SACRAMENTO, CA – It was a spirited argument presented by Assistant Public Defender Damien Jovel—to reduce his client’s charges—but Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Alyson Lewis this week denied the preliminary hearing motion after an assault rifle was found in the room of another man in the defendant’s home.
Christian Mendoza was arrested on a felony probation violation after police found the assault rifle in his home in early March. His social media activity didn’t help his case.
Prior to her decision, Judge Lewis heard from Deputy District Attorney Jordan Avery, who called the arresting officer, Officer (no first name given livestream) Cunningham as a witness.
Officer Cunningham, accompanied by other officers, went to the home of the defendant to search him as a condition of his probation. When officers arrived on the scene an “older male gentleman” answered.
The officer testified that he “observed Christian Mendoza peek his head out around the corner in the hallway,” and he then asked the defendant to come toward him.
Initially complying, explained Cunningham, the defendant began walking toward him. The defendant then, however, “turned around and walked back down the hallway away from [Cunningham], out of [his] view.”
Despite the noncompliance, stated Cunningham, the officers were able to identify which room of the house belonged to the defendant. Officers searched the defendant’s room and were unable to “find anything of interest.”
The officers, explained Cunningham, then searched another room in the house that belonged to Adrian Osuna, where they found “a rifle which [Cunningham] recognized as an assault weapon.”
Officer Cunningham further testified that when the defendant began walking away, he witnessed the defendant walking toward the room in which the assault rifle was found, though he did not see the defendant walk into the room.
Further, Cunningham explained that he had seen this assault rifle before.
“As one of my duties,” he stated, “we monitor the social media accounts of subjects, and I observed what appeared to be the same rifle on a social media account, Instagram, that I believed belonged to Christian Mendoza.”
Cunningham believed the social media account to belong to the defendant because “in the biography, the name Christian Mendoza was listed, and there were 1,000 posts on that social media account which included photos of Mr. Mendoza, selfies of his face, as well as stories.”
On Jan. 30, Officer Cunningham observed “Mendoza holding up a rifle, which appeared to be the same rifle [he] located in Osuna’s room,” and “if we loaded a live round into that rifle, the rifle would have been operable.”
The officer also testified that the defendant made a statement conceding that he knew the gun was in the house and that he had taken photos with it in the past.
In his cross-examination of Officer Cunningham, Public Defender Jovel attempted to poke holes in Cunningham’s police report, questioning its length and missing officer names.
PD Jovel also pointed out that Officer Cunningham initially went to the house to conduct a probation search on both the defendant and Osuna. Officer Cunningham conceded that they aimed to search both of them, but that their primary focus was the defendant.
PD Jovel continued to mention that Cunningham did not put all involved officers on the police report, though Cunningham claimed that was “normal,” and then continued to question the report’s length.
In an attempt to argue that the defendant did not move the gun into Osuna’s room, PD Jovel asked if the defendant had anything in his hands when he was moving toward the room and away from the officer.
Officer Cunningham responded, “I don’t remember seeing anything that made me believe that he had a rifle in his hands.”
Further, argued PD Jovel, Osuna’s room was locked when officers came to search it, requiring them to pick the lock of the room.
PD Jovel then began to inquire about the specifics of the weapon found, becoming agitated when Officer Cunningham would expand on questions asked.
“Officer Cunningham, I’m going to ask you a question and try to listen to the question. Just answer the question as I pose it to you. I am going to try to simplify this for you,” insisted PD Jovel.
Clearly irritated by the continuous questioning of the rifle specifics, Judge Lewis paused PD Jovel, after a sustained objection by DDA Avery, stating, “I just think it goes beyond the scope for what’s necessary for his testimony.”
Officer Cunningham was then dismissed and PD Jovel submitted on the charges, then motioned for the charge to be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“The evidence is clear that the assault rifle was in the locked room of Mr. Osuna. There is no evidence that [the defendant] has ever used it or anything. This is just a young man showing off,” argued PD Jovel.
DDA Avery opposed PD Jovel’s argument, arguing “in this case, we have somebody who is posting on social media with a gun multiple times…we know Mr. Mendoza possessed the gun, knew the gun was there, and despite the fact that he has no prior felony convictions, that does not mean that this charge should be reduced.”
Judge Lewis denied the motion, asserting that it appears the charge “has been committed,” and that she “found sufficient cause to believe that the defendant is guilty.”
Christian Mendoza’s trial is set for Aug. 30.
Sophia Barberini, from San Mateo, CA, is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley. She is double majoring in Political Science and Legal Studies and hopes to pursue a career in law.
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