COURT WATCH: Jury Finds Accused Not Guilty – Defense Argument Struck at Prosecution’s Witness Credibility, Lack of Evidence

By Cynthia Hoang-Duong

WOODLAND, CA – A jury here in Yolo County Superior Court, after deliberating parts of two days, Wednesday found an accused not guilty of two felony counts for the theft or unauthorized use of a vehicle and for purchasing or receiving a stolen vehicle and a misdemeanor for possessing burglary tools.

In the six-hour-long jury trial, the defense attacked the prosecution’s argument about the accused’s involvement in an incident involving a stolen vehicle, highlighting a lack of witness credibility and insufficient evidence.

Before the jury entered the courtroom, Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira clarified with Judge Tom Dyer that the jury must be instructed that they can only convict him of one of the felony charges because they rely on the same operative facts: the accused did not have the owner’s permission to possess the vehicle.

After the judge addressed their suggestions for jury instructions, the two parties proceeded with brief opening statements.

Deputy District Attorney Jose Figueroa informed the jury they will hear from the victim who will report that in mid-Nov. of 2021, his Honda Accord was stolen during the night he parked it at his girlfriend’s house. He was eventually notified by the West Sacramento Police Department that his vehicle was found.

Citing statements from the police officer on duty, the DDA said the officer found the Honda Accord in a parking lot near Silvey’s Motel Nov. 30 with the accused present before he drove off with the vehicle.

Relying on the facts DDA Figueroa presented, the DPD instead clarified, “If the law said that those two facts—as presented by the prosecution—are enough to find somebody guilty of the crimes that (the accused) is charged with, it would be easy. But that’s not it. There has to be a little bit more.”

Particularly, DPD Sequeira raised issues regarding the accused’s knowledge, the victim’s credibility, and lack of evidence that are pertinent to the defense’s argument, concluding, “The law’s going to dictate the finding of ‘not guilty’ when we’re done.”

The prosecution first called the victim to the stand. He confirmed the fundamental details of the case. On Nov. 15, 2021, he parked his Honda Accord 1996 about a block from his girlfriend’s house at night and locked the car with his key. The following morning, he realized the car was missing and contacted the police department.

In response to the DDA’s questions, he recounted that two weeks later, his car was found by the West Sacramento Police Department. He noted that the vehicle did not contain any personal items before the vehicle was stolen because the police had cleaned out the car.

DDA Figueroa turned his questions to the morning of the trial regarding their discussion in the side room. The witness detailed their conversation in which he informed his attorney that his vehicle had been stolen again after the incident and it was found in a tow yard.

However, he had first incorrectly told the DDA that he had sold it to a friend because “It was just confusion. Kind of just nervous, and this was like a couple of years now.”

DPD Sequeira proceeded with cross-examination by inquiring the victim witness about the vehicle’s location on the day of the incident. She pressed him about his statements to the police that he parked the car around 28th St and T St., asking, “Did you park the vehicle on T St or 28th on the 15th?”

The witness responded, “On the 28th … the 27th St actually.”

DPD Sequeira responded, “So you didn’t park the car on the corner of 28th and T St?”

“No, it was on 27th,” he clarified.

She then pressed, “So, when you told the officer you parked your black and green 1996 Honda Accord on the corner of 28th and T St in Sacramento, was that a lie?”

The witness responded in the negative, leading the DPD to ask, “Why did you tell the officer you parked it on 28th?”

“It was just confusion. I was trying to remember where I actually parked the car,” he replied.

Highlighting the location’s exposure to the public, she asked the witness to affirm that the intersection of 28th and T street is controlled by stop lights and four commercial businesses that operate on the corner.

She also confirmed with the witness that between Nov. 15  and Nov. 30, the victim recognized the car on the freeway in Sacramento. He reported the license plate attached to dispatch. He failed to see anything more identifying than the person’s head.

Turning to the victim’s inconsistent statements that the car was stolen again, the DPD pressed him about the incident. He answered that he reported the vehicle to the Sacramento Police Department but did not have a copy of the report and that the DDA did not ask him for a copy.

Regarding his conversations with his attorney earlier this morning, the DPD inquired, “You indicated to him that you had sold the vehicle, yes?” “Yes,” the witness replied.
She then asked, “And you gave him a price that you had sold the vehicle for, yes?”  Again, the victim responded in the affirmative.

 “But that was a lie, yes? Because you didn’t sell the vehicle, correct? You just gave it to a friend,” pressed DPD Sequeira.

The witness replied, “No, it stayed in the tow yard.”

During re-direct, the victim clarified he does not remember the exact location where he parked the vehicle, only that it was on 27th or 28th.

On re-cross, he confirmed that when he arrived on the scene, his vehicle was not damaged, including the keyhole or ignition.

After the morning break, the prosecution called Officer Daniel Gill. He informed the jury that while he was patrolling Silvey’s Motel’s parking lot to run license plates, a Honda Accord with the driver’s door open caught his attention.

When he turned and exited the parking lot, he witnessed a subject crouching near the front driver’s side, “concealing himself” because he was “ducked down by the front driver side tire, looking over the hood.”

While parking his vehicle at City Hall, he ran the license plate through his vehicle’s system which returned a 2022 Honda Accord. When he verified this with the police license plate system he noticed that before Nov. 17, the vehicle was associated with a tan Honda Accord.

When he searched the vehicle, he found five shaved keys on a key ring at the center console of the vehicle. He explained to the jury that “shaved keys” refer to ignition keys with rivets that have been shaved, creating a smooth surface to override security mechanisms.

Beginning her cross-examination, DPD Sequeira used a line of questioning that compelled the officer to admit that persons from the parking lot are very viewable from the street of West Capitol. He agreed that police officers often drive down the street because the motels, such as Silvey’s Motel, on West Capitol have a reputation for housing individuals with criminal histories.

“Everybody who ever stays at those hotels on West Capitol knows that the police are driving down that street because it’s pretty obvious, yes?” Asked the DPD.

The officer responded in the affirmative.

“In fact, the reputation of those hotels on that street is pretty police attractive, yes?” She confirmed.

“So when you say (the accused) was crouching behind the driver’s side door of the car, do you think he thought you couldn’t see the car?”

The officer said he did not think the accused was worried about him noticing the car but rather hid himself.

In response, she claimed, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense because, of course, you can see him. The parking lot’s open, right? The car is there isn’t it?”

“So when you say he’s crouching by the vehicle, it’s not like you can’t see the vehicle there. It’s not like you can’t see a person next to the vehicle,” said the DPD, adding, “So what would he be trying to hide?”

Inquiring the officer about his search of the vehicle, DPD Sequeira asked him about the state of the vehicle. The officer reported that the vehicle was not damaged, including the ignition, windows, or handles.

In response to questions she asked him about the shaved rings he found in the center console, Officer Gill answered that the shaved keys were not in the ignition of the Honda. Rather, the key that was in ignition was on a separate lanyard.

When asked if any officer removed the key out of the ignition and documented it before returning it to the owner, the officer admitted he was not sure if anyone determined if the key in the ignition was a Honda key that belonged to the vehicle.

In closing, DDA Figueroa reminded the jury of the elements of the accused’s first charge: [1] the accused drove another individual’s vehicle without their consent and [2] when he drove the vehicle, he intended to deprive the individual of their ownership.

In addressing the first element, the DDA reiterated the facts of the case, involving the accused driving the vehicle of the owner without his permission.

Regarding the second element, DDA noted the personal items belonging to the accused left in the vehicle, stating, “Essentially, (the accused) has moved his belongings into the car. He’s clearly trying to assert some kind of ownership in the car.”

Turning to the second felony count, DDA reminded the jury that before they decide if he is guilty of the second offense, they must first determine whether he is guilty of count one.

Again, count two has two requirements. First, the accused received a vehicle that had been stolen. He repeated his previous analysis of the first count: the accused was driving the car and had his belongings in the vehicle. Second, when he received the car, he knew it was stolen.

The DDA admitted, “We don’t know exactly how (the accused) came into possession of the car,” however, he added, “But what we do know, (the victim) did not give it to him. He didn’t sell, didn’t trade it in, didn’t transfer the title, didn’t do anything with (the accused).”

The presence of the shaved key—used to gain access to vehicles—indicates the car was stolen, said the DDA. He reiterated that the license plate did not match the vehicle registered. This evidence, paired with his unusual behavior (e.g., concealing himself from the police officer), led the DDA to suggest to the jury this conveyed his state of mind.

And finally, the shaved keys in the vehicle constitute possession of burglary tools with the intent to enter the car and commit theft, stated the DDA.

DPD Sequeira emphasized the prosecution’s burden of proof and failure to prove that every fact is beyond a reasonable doubt. She also reminded the jury it is not the responsibility of the defense to rebut the prosecution’s evidence if the government cannot prove that it occurred.

First, she targeted the victim’s testimony as evidence. Addressing the jury, she asked, “You have an individual who came in here and testified that on Nov. 15 … You don’t know that individual … You’ve never met him before and you don’t know anything about his credibility … What you do know is that 10 minutes before he took the stand and took an oath to tell the truth, nothing but the truth … he looked this man in the eye and he lied to him. Straight to his face.”

The DPD added that although he claimed he called the police the second time his car was stolen, the DPD reminded that the prosecution did not provide any report as evidence. And she recounted how he was “confused” about the location of where he parked the vehicle.

“The government has to exclude every other reasonable conclusion … Is it reasonable if somebody were to come into the courtroom and lie to a DA and potentially almost commit perjury if he wasn’t stopped by the defense attorney asking questions … Where in the world is that guy going to be found to be credible anywhere?” exclaimed the DPD.

Focusing on the knowledge element of his charges, DPD Sequeira reminded that the accused must know that the vehicle was stolen.

Based on this element, she argued that the government lacked evidence to prove that her client possessed this knowledge, inquiring, “Where did the accused get the car? They (the prosecution) just told you they didn’t think he was the one who stole it. Clearly, they don’t because they charged two counts in the alternative and you can only find him guilty of one.”

Because the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence (e.g., the accused was in the car), the DPD instructed the jury, “If there’s two reasonable conclusions based on the circumstantial evidence and one points to innocence and one points to guilt, the law says that you have to adopt the one that points to innocence.”

As enumerated in the jury instruction, the fact that the accused is in the car does not mean he knew the vehicle was stolen, said the defense. Thus, there are two reasonable conclusions: either he knew the car was stolen or he did not know. Yet, the prosecution did not prove the accused’s knowledge because there was no evidence provided—he was just present in the car.

Targeting the officer’s testimony of the shaved keys, the DPD emphasized how they had no connection to the car because they were not used. There was a key in the ignition that was not documented and therefore, the prosecution cannot infer that this key had also been shaved.

Further, she noted Officer Gill required experience and law enforcement technology to determine that the license plate did not match the registered car. On the other hand, the accused has no resources that allow him to determine that the car was stolen.

Because the vehicle was not damaged, she claimed, “Nothing about the vehicle itself would give rise to a person to think that the vehicle was stolen unless you ran the plate. And the only way you can run the plate is if you have that law enforcement program.”

Moreover, she asserted her client did not attempt to evade the police, arguing that a rational person who knows they possess a stolen vehicle would not be present in an area with West Capitol’s reputation, drawing attention to himself.

Regarding his crouching movement testified by Officer Gill, she reiterated that this is circumstantial evidence because there are two reasonable conclusions: one, his demeanor was suspicious, or two, he was tying his shoe, changing, using his phone, etc. And as the law dictates, the jury cannot choose the guilty conclusion unless the government excludes all reasonable inferences, the DPD said.

She emphasized that it is not the defense’s responsibility to explain why the accused was in the vehicle; rather, it is the prosecution’s burden to prove its conclusion.

Concluding her statement, DPD Sequeira targeted the prosecution’s charges: “Count one and count two are charged in the alternative. That’s what I meant when I said the government doesn’t really believe count one is sufficient with evidence that’s been introduced because they charge it in the alternative … It means we don’t know really what charge (the accused) did … That should underscore the credibility of their own evidence. They can’t decide what count the evidence is strongest for.”

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