By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Last week’s column focused on the fact that Yolo County has one of the least diverse benches in the state. Prior to the departure of two judges in the last few weeks, Yolo had 11 judges—9 of them were men, only one of them, a person of color.
This past week, Department 9 was the de facto department of action with a number of compelling preliminary hearings and motions to suppress. Our court watch is trained to look for what I call “Everyday Injustice” —or what we define as the average or everyday problem that afflicts the system.
What we saw this week—over and over again—is that the vigorous advocacy of defense attorneys and a judge willing to do what’s right can avert additional injustice.
In this case, to illustrate both points more clearly, that judge was Sonia Cortés, the only woman of color on the entire Yolo County bench.
Last Monday, we saw a man accused of a violation of his parole but Judge Cortés dismissed it because of a lack of clear evidence presented by the prosecution, and inconsistencies of a police officer’s testimony.
A big part of the defense was that the officer testimony simply was not credible. And the defense cited two video clips submitted as evidence that appeared to have major inconsistencies in what happened during the night of the incident.
Judge Cortés noted that “the burden is on the People to prove that a violation of parole had occurred. Based on the evidence, the People had not met the burden to establish that there had been a violation. There’s no evidence presented that shows that [the accused] knowingly violated the terms of his parole.”
She also added that the court was “concerned with inconsistencies in the officer’s testimony about the police report and body cam footage provided as evidence.”
This was a technical violation of terms of parole. The man was supposed to stay away from an individual. But the consequence of this could have been the revocation of parole and reincarceration.
In another case, two young people were facing felony theft charges for shoplifting at Woodland and Davis CVS stores. There were questions about the value of the products stolen.
But, more importantly, neither person had a criminal record.
They were charged under PC section 4904(a)(1) et seq. which provides for organized retail theft, two or more occasions, and a value exceeding $950.
Public Defender Katie De Anda argued that “these are conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor charges.”
She pointed out that her client “has zero prior criminal history.” She also noted he was 18 at the time of the incident, and he is now two days away from turning 20.
“He has done a lot of work on his own, where he is trying to join the military,” she said. “He has taken the exam to join the military and scored very well, according to his recruiter. But the thing that’s holding him up are these charges—he can’t actually enter into the military with pending criminal cases.”
De Anda added, “While a prosecutor has to a duty of zealous advocacy, they have to use their discretion when they’re charging these.”
She argued that the conduct does not “rise to the level of felony conduct.”
Ultimately, for both people, Judge Cortés exercised her discretion and reduced the charges to misdemeanors.
Noted Judge Cortés, “I am going to reduce them to misdemeanors. In particular, given that (the accused) was 18 at the time, he has no prior criminal history. One of the officers, I believe it was Officer Smith, testified that he was remorseful. When he gave a statement, he was cooperative.”
In a third case, Judge Cortés has yet to rule and it is perhaps the most troubling. In a motion to suppress, the judge is seeking additional briefing.
Woodland police officers came across a young woman sleeping in her vehicle while stopped at an intersection in the early morning hours of October 30, 2022.
The woman was reluctant to exit her vehicle due to her attire. Two female officers ultimately had her put on a hazmat suit. Over the course of a more than 40-minute encounter, the police attempted to convince the woman to take a PAS (preliminary alcohol screening) test—but the incident, caught on body camera video that was shown in open court on Wednesday, shows the woman repeatedly declining the PAS, which under state law is her right.
At first glance, it seems that two female officers went out of their way to assuage the subject who was pulled over and clearly suffering from anxiety.
The problem of course is that the woman had the right to refuse to take a PAS test, and the police basically continued to detain until she basically broke down, cried, and submitted.
Public Defender Cheyanne Martin, representing the woman, filed a motion to suppress on her behalf, arguing that the prolonged detention became coercive when the officers ignored repeated declarations by the woman to decline the PAS test.
She noted, “My client was very much against the tests and then eventually became ambivalent toward the tests.”
Martin continued, “While I would concede that there was probable cause to interact with my client that night, based on her falling asleep at the light, after my client clearly stated no, that she did not want to submit to the PAS test and no, that she did not want to do the FSTs [field sobriety tests], is the point where this detention became prolonged unlawful and in violation of her constitutional right.”
At several points the woman told the officer to either write her a ticket or take her in.
“That’s what she wanted to do,” Martin said. “Officer Brewer chose not to do that. Instead she kept my client on the scene of the Chevron gas station at 3:30 in the morning, wearing a hazmat suit, and proceeded to ask her over and over and over until someone who was against the tests, very much against the test, eventually became what Mr. Gorner describes as ambivalent toward the test.”
Martin argued, “They broke my client down after she clearly exercised her right to refuse to do the field sobriety test by saying no.”
Martin added, “The Fourth Amendment exists for a reason. My client exercised her rights. She decided she did not want to do the tests, and she did not do anything to prevent the officer’s investigation.”
In fact, Martin reiterated, “she offered that the officers either write her a ticket or take her in if they were placing her under arrest. At that point, she offered to get herself an Uber home because the officers kept mentioning that her safety was their biggest concern.”
This one will be decided in late July when both Martin and DDA Casper Gorner submit their briefings to Judge Cortés.
What we saw this week in Department 9 was a clear trend of overcharging, questionable police work, and overzealous prosecution. Would other judges in this county have held the police and prosecutors accountable?