‘That’s Appalling,’ Judge Responds to Lack of Notary Services in Federal Prison System

By Daniella Dueñas

WOODLAND, CA – In Yolo County Superior Court this week, the accused faced a trial setting conference, but unlike most accused who appear in person or virtually through zoom meetings, the accused was held in custody in federal prison not appearing.

The accused is charged with nine felonies, including street gang activity, possession of a firearm, and child abuse and several enhancements and a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana.

Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira, appearing for the accused, said, “Can I ask the court a quick question on a case that I think was passed on to [the accused]? I just want to make sure we’re going to recall the matter.”

Judge Timothy Fall responded, “You and Ms. Serafin answered that. And I do not recall…we have not resolved what we’re on for today. So possible change of plea, your client’s in federal custody…what’s the status, counsel?”

According to Sequeira, her client was prepared to enter a plea and she had the plea forms on his behalf. However, missing from the plea form was the notarization of the form. Since it was a plea in absentia, it either needed to be notarized or signed in the presence of an attorney.

“[The accused] is in custody in federal prison,” Sequeira reiterated, “Based on that, he’s unable to get authorization or get the means available to make it notarized. My understanding is that the plea form was sent to a locked fed facility with instructions that the mail not be open by anybody other than [the accused], in the presence of a correctional authority figure.”

She added that because he was in federal custody, it was extremely difficult for her to hear from him consistently. She did emphasize, though, that he was in fact the one who reached out to her to put him back on the calendar.

“I don’t have any doubt that he wanted to do this and wanted to sign the forms,” Sequeira affirmed. She was not sure how long it would take for the plea to be notarized if the court did not accept the current condition of the form.

“A couple of things come to mind. One is why a fed prison does not have notary services available…he can’t be the only person in the entire fed prison system that has things that need to be notarized,” Judge Fall reasoned.

The judge added, “If they flat out do not offer that and they tell people to wait until your time is done and find a notary outside. That’s appalling. If they do have it available but make it difficult, that’s also appalling.”

Judge Fall suggested that the line in the plea form be modified so it does not say that the signature with the accused’s name on top was not made in the presence of an attorney but that it was told directly to the attorney.

“If this gets taken up to appeal and reversed,” Judge Fall ended, “Then we will all learn better what the law is.”

The change was made with a finding of factual and legal necessity. Another hearing was scheduled for Oct. 18 to make time for credit information and a probation sentencing report.

About The Author

Daniella Dueñas is a recent graduate from the University of California, Davis. She double-majored in Political Science and Sociology, with an emphasis on law and society. Her interest is primarily in immigration law, however, she is also interested in criminal law and justice. Daniella plans to attend law school in the future, but is working towards getting a certificate from an ABA-approved paralegal program.

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