Judge Declares ‘Bar Low,’ Denies Motion to Reduce Felony Firearm Charges Even after Handgun Found in Backpack Belonging to Driver, Not Accused

By Sunny Zhou 

WOODLAND, CA – In a preliminary hearing this week, Yolo County Superior Court Judge Sonia Cortés denied the defense motion to reduce the charges of a 20-year-old man accused of possessing a firearm that was discovered in a backpack belonging to his driver.

The accused is charged with three felony counts of firearm possession with a prior felony conviction, possession of ammunition by a person prohibited from owning a firearm, and carrying a concealed firearm in a vehicle.

Deputy District Attorney Aaron Rojas called Deputy Sheriff Matthew Martin as a witness.

Martin testified that on Jan. 19, 8:30 a.m.,  he conducted an enforcement stop in the Woodland Raley’s parking lot after noticing a BMW with tinted windows and no license plate “was in the rightmost lane, but had its left blinker on and continued straight.”

Martin did not recall the name of the driver, but identified the other person in the car as the accused. He testified he did field sobriety tests and occupants were “not under the influence of alcohol.”

Martin testified the passengers responded they were “not under any form” of probation or parole when asked, though after conducting a records check he found the accused was on probation in Sacramento County, noting, “I asked (the accused) why he didn’t tell me the truth…he indicated he was nervous.”

After (the accused) and the driver complied with the exit, Martin testified, he searched the BMW and found a “loaded polymer 19 mm semi-auto [handgun]…inside of a backpack, on the backseat…on the driver’s side.”

According to Martin, the backpack also contained a wallet with a health insurance card and a piece of mail or check, both listing the accused’s name, adding, “There was also some loose marijuana in a pill bottle with Xanax.”

Deputy Public Defender Danielle Craig questioned Martin on the identity of the driver and who the backpack belonged to, and, after looking at the report, Martin confirmed the driver’s name was not the accused, who was also not the vehicle’s registered driver.

Craig asked Martin where and how the backpack initially was before moving it to take pictures, and the officer said, “I don’t recall.”

Martin confirmed that during the stop, the driver had said,” ‘please don’t take my pills.’”

Martin confirmed he logged evidence, including the gray backpack, which he believed belonged to the driver.

When Craig asked what steps he took to attribute the pistol to the accused, Officer Martin replied that he “looked at [the pistol], looked at the wallet, and looked at the charges (the accused) is on probation for.”

The officer also admitted the accused said the phone and the backpack (with the gun) were not his.

“I think there are some serious issues in this case,” DPD Craig began, “I think…as to Count 1 there has been no evidence submitted of prior conviction.”

On the issue of possession, she pointed out the backpack found behind the driver’s side belonged to the driver, not the accused, and ”yet we choose and cherry pick who the gun belongs to.”

Craig made a motion to reduce the felony charges to a misdemeanor, emphasizing the weapon was not within arm’s reach of the accused and the officer did not find the accused threatening.

Before his argument, DDA Rojas motioned to reopen evidence for a certified prior, which Craig objected to but Judge Cortés granted.

“There is probable cause to hold all three counts,” said prosecutor Rojas, pointing out the accused is a convicted felon, and argued a backpack on the driver’s side rear seat would be easier, not harder for a passenger to reach.

On the issue of who owned the gun, Rojas admitted, “I will say that is up in the air…the bar for probable cause is low.”

Rojas argued against reducing Counts 2 and 3 to misdemeanors on the basis the accused had a prior felony conviction.

Public Defender Craig insisted the prosecution had “not addressed issues of possession…the court can and should reduce [the charges].”

Judge Cortés denied the “17(b) motion” to reduce charges, noting, “[T]he standard is low, so at this time there is sufficient evidence to hold (the accused) on Counts 1, 2, and 3 as felonies. I’m not reducing 2 and 3 at this time.”

”I’m concerned with the recency of a firearms conviction,” she continued. “The issue of possession may be up to trial, but not up to prelim.”

About The Author

Sunny is a third year Political Science student at UC Davis. She is passionate about the intersection between law, justice, and creative media. In her spare time, she enjoys watching films, playing TTRPGs, and creating animated shorts.

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