By Wayne Chan
WOODLAND, CA— In Yolo County Superior Court Monday, a man who told the judge he “just wanted some dry clothes,” was sentenced to four years after he was convicted by a jury for felony second degree robbery.
The sentencing hearing began with Judge Peter M. Williams stating he read the sentencing statements from both parties and that he was not sure if he would follow either of them in the case of Joseph Michael Betancourt.
Judge Williams added, “I don’t believe Mr. Betancourt is suitable for probation. My tentative is to give him a mid-term of three years, keep the strike, which will double to six years, but strike the nickel.”
Deputy Public Defender Peter Borruso, representing Betancourt, started by arguing that the fact pattern included in probation was not actually what occurred.
Judge Williams responded that “the factual scenario set forth in probation is irrelevant to [him],” reminding PD Borruso that he was present during the trial as well.
PD Borruso argued Betancourt should receive a low-term sentence because of factors of mitigation.
According to Borruso, the day of the crime was “the rainiest day of the year, literally… to [his] understanding, potentially the last hundred years.”
On this incredibly rainy day, Betancourt, who was homeless at the time, went into Walmart and “takes items that were a T-shirt, jacket…green satchel and some sort of rain jacket… approximately $50 [worth].” He then tries to walk out of Walmart when an undercover loss prevention officer confronts him and “initiates physical contact…This led to a “very brief scuffle.”
PD Borruso argued these are mitigating factors because Betancourt could have stolen from a mom-and-pop store but instead chose to steal from a company “worth billions of dollars.”
He added the effect on the victims is thus far less severe. He also pointed out that the only thing Betancourt took were things of necessity. And that Betancourt never intended to use fear or force, he was just “trying to take the items and walk out.”
He summarized the situation by saying a “homeless man takes items of necessity on the rainiest day of the year from a multi-billion dollar corporation and is approached by someone undercover. The matter lasts [for] seconds…no punches were thrown.”
Thus, PD Borruso maintained, “when we look at the actual facts of this case, you can’t get any lower than that in terms of a robbery. “There was no plan to use fear or force. There were no weapons, no threats, no retaliation, and minimal injuries. And Betancourt was cooperative once arrested. “
The facts of this case, PD Borruso argued, warrant a low-term sentence.
Judge Williams responded that he does not believe this is some unique circumstance that mitigates Betancourt’s actions. And that he disagreed with the fact that the scuffle was brief. In fact, Judge Williams described it as “fierce.
“He has a long-standing history of various kinds of theft,” Judge Williams said.
It does not seem like an “aberration where it was so rainy that [Betancourt] needed to go get a jacket.” Instead, Judge Williams said that this seemed to be Betancourt’s MO based on his history.
Judge Williams stated that when “[Betancourt] needs something, he goes and takes it.”
Judge Williams also mentioned that Betancourt admitted to possibly being under the influence of methamphetamine, which does not sound “terribly unique at all.”
PD Borruso reiterated there is a big difference between intending to use fear or force and what Betancourt did. He emphasized that Betancourt had no intention of using fear or force or any form of threat and violence. It only resulted, he argued, in violence—minimal violence—because someone, who Betancourt could not identify as an officer, confronted him physically.
Judge Williams responded that it seems absurd that Betancourt would not anticipate that someone confronting him would be confronting him about the fact that he just shoplifted so that he felt the need to resort to violence to escape.
Still, PD Borruso noted, the undercover officer was the one who initiated physical contact. Also, he said, Betancourt had a satchel on, which, by nature, is not something that can be easily taken off of someone without struggle.
PD Borruso then gave the court a few sentencing options and reminded the court of a new law relevant to the sentencing of this case.
Acknowledging this, Judge Williams stated the new law “does not really change your analysis, Mr. Borruso,” based on what was just argued.
PD Borruso then indicated that Betancourt would like to address the court.
Betancourt said, “I just wanna say… I made a poor choice. I made a poor decision.” He said the day of he didn’t have any thoughts of stealing anything. It was raining so hard that his trailer was flooded so badly that the water had risen to his knees. He was forced to abandon his trailer.
“I just wanted some dry clothes,” Betancourt told the judge.
It was then Deputy District Attorney Preston Schaub’s turn, and he first explained this was not his case originally and that he was substituting for someone else. He added that he has taken into account the factors of mitigation and was sympathetic to the circumstances of the case.
However, DDA Schaub stated that Betancourt is an individual with a poor history of theft and a history of not utilizing resources available to him to avoid such situations.
He also argues that whether the store is a multi-billion dollar company or a mom-and-pop store would not matter because “he is using force to do it at the end of the day.”
He acknowledged that it is the loss prevention officer who initiated the physical contact, who had that “right under the law. It is on Mr. Betancourt, not on the loss prevention officer, to comply at that point.”
DDA Schaub raised the question of what if, in the future, should Betancourt steal again, a different officer is incapable of restraining him. “This is a dangerous path…and, until he understands that, the punishment needs to be relatively severe,” DDA Schaub said.
This was why the DA’s office did not offer a misdemeanor, and there was no call for probation, argued Schaub.
Judge Williams sentenced Betancourt to a low-term of two years, as opposed to the mid-term of three he originally discussed.
The two years will be doubled to four years because of prior strikes and enhancement. There were a few other misdemeanor charges which Judge Williams sentenced to a few months at most, and all will be served concurrently to the four-year total sentence.