The Blanch Blog LA

California – new Laws for 2019

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The year 2018 proved to be auspicious for California as its recent legislation made it legal for recreational marijuana to be used across the state. This year brings with it new laws as well, from new biking and transportation laws to increased regulations on gun use.

Hit and Run

            It is now illegal for a biker who hits a pedestrian on a bike path and causes injuries to flee the scene. The biker will be required to remain at the scene and help the injured person if possible. Leaving the scene could result in criminal charges, just like traditional hit-and-run cases for motorists. There is currently a law in place for hit-and-run bike incidents on public roads, but there was a gap in the law when it came to public bike paths. The law came as a result of a significant incident on a path in Sacramento when 61-year-old Bill Finkbeiner was struck by a cyclist. The accident resulted in a fractured skull, broken nose, facial fractures and a broken hand for Mr. Finkbeiner, as well as the loss of two teeth. The biker was never arrested or charged because the hit-and-run laws did not apply.


Individuals with modified mufflers designed to make excessive or unusual noises no longer enjoy the luxury of a fix-it ticket, whereby they could demonstrate they have removed the equipment from their car and the charges disappear. Instead, a change in the law has made it a full-blown citation. This is designed to stop repeat offenders who would fix the problem with their exhaust before going to court and would then immediately affix the illegal equipment once their citation was signed off.

Juvenile Prosecution

The minimum age for prosecution in a juvenile court is now 12 unless the accused has committed murder or rape. There is also no longer a way for the state to try a defendant under the age of 16 as an adult. They will be sent to a juvenile detention facility instead of prison.

Police Transparency

Legislators now require images captured on body cameras on police officers and any other audio recording has to be disclosed to the public. There are stricter guidelines in place, with the department required to release the images or audio to the public within 45 days after a police shooting or excessive force results in the injury or death of a person. There will also be public access to police records in the case of force, including investigations which have confirmed a lack of honesty by an officer in their work or through sexual misconduct.

Gun Laws

Now, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense after the first of this year will be prevented from owning or possessing a firearm for the rest of their lives. Gun owners with a concealed carry license must take a minimum of 8 hours of training and demonstrate proficiency and safety on a shooting range. This changes the law where concealed carry license holders could obtain one without ever having shot a gun.

Crimes against Immigrants

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Immigration is always a hot topic in the U.S., especially right before an election. Instead of debating the merits of our current immigration policies, this article will focus on some of the crimes that disproportionately affect immigrant populations, particularly in New York.

It can be difficult to determine how often crimes occur because undocumented immigrants are often afraid of reporting when they have been victimized. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission received approximately 1,100 complaints from immigrants nationwide.

In Spanish-speaking communities, a notario is someone who can offer legal services. In the U.S. notary publics are not the same thing, and many times, people who are notary public pass themselves off as legal advisors, charging excessive fees without ever providing any legal assistance. In New York, notaries are licensed only to certify identities and signatures, and will not necessarily also be attorneys.

Another common scam is the 10-year visa. The Manhattan DA recently indicted a suspended immigration attorney after he offered a ’10-year green card’ service without fully explaining the process, which often involves deportation. Frequently, attorneys will tell immigrants who have been present in the US for ten years,  have paid taxes, no criminal record, and have children who were born here,  they could receive a work permit. In fact, this  process usually involves an application for asylum.  Qualifying for asylum is a very high standard. If the immigrant fails to demonstrate ‘exceptional and extremely unusual hardship,’  then he or she could be deported. Thanks to language barriers and fear, most immigrants do not realize that they have applied for asylum until they receive notice for their asylum hearing.

Sometimes, individuals will pose as immigration officials and threaten them with deportation. They will demand personal information, like passport numbers, credit cards, and social security numbers. They then use this information to steal their identities or liquidate their bank accounts. If the individual is here illegally, then they might be threatened with being reported to the authorities in exchange for a bribe or some other services they would not otherwise want to have. Immigrants are often duped into paying significant fees for what they believe to be legitimate paperwork or applications. Scammers have sold fake visas and plane tickets to immigrants as well.

Immigrants often face difficulties with work, particularly if they are undocumented.  Sometimes, companies will hire immigrants and refuse to pay them, or pay them far below the minimum wage. They rely on the fact that immigrants will probably not report this to the relevant authorities. Other times, they are targeted for fake investment opportunities or pyramid schemes, or with a promise to expedite their immigration applications for a fee.

At the time of Trump’s election in 2016, then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made it a priority for immigrants to use the state’s resources to report crimes. However, according to WNYC,  when asked if the New York state agencies had received more complaints in 2017  than in 2016, the answer was a consistent ‘no.’ Instead, their numbers decreased.  Most agencies attribute this decline to the hostile environment immigrants currently face under the present administration. The D.A. has assured the public that his office is a safe environment for immigrants who believe they have been defrauded to report their situations.

California Wildfires

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The California wildfires have been a horrific reminder that life is short, and has compounded the concerns that climate change present to a modern society. Hundreds remain missing in what has been the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history – but what, or who caused them is still under investigation. Authorities in California have been forced to change how they deal with people who cause fires – whether accidentally, or on purpose.

In 2004, the Bear fire burned 11,000 acres in California. A man named William Rupp was arrested and convicted of arson, spending two years in state prison. It is somewhat unusual for someone to be convicted of arson for setting a wildfire – often because the initial spark is unintentional. In Mr. Rupp’s case, he was accused of ignoring the serious fire hazard when he rode his riding lawn mower and cut his grass on a dry day where temperatures reached 106 degrees. The mower blade hit a rock and sparked a fire. He was ordered to pay $2.9 million to the victims, although he has no way to pay. In another case, a civil lawsuit was filed against a Saudi businessman after a poorly maintained electrical junction on his property caused the 2015 Mountain fire, which burned over 27,500 acres. Prosecutors are able to secure convictions under these cases if they can show that someone willfully and maliciously or recklessly set fire to something.

It is also incredibly difficult to find the person ultimately responsible for starting to blaze. Few arsonists have been convicted of wildfire arson. Raymond Lee Oyler was the first, currently sitting on death row in California. Over five months, he played a well-orchestrated game of cat and mouse with various California fire departments, setting systematic fires and watching the devastation play out through his binoculars.

In California, a conviction for arson under California Penal Code 451(c) is a felony which carries state imprisonment for between two to six years. However, if someone is charged and convicted of arson that causes great bodily injury, that is a felony punishable by a prison term for five to nine years. Arson which causes an inhabited property to burn is punishable by state prison for three to eight years. California also has a felony murder rule, which means that if an individual carries out felony arson, but then also kills someone in the process, they could face murder charges and spend life in prison if convicted.

Some of the most common defenses to arson charges are usually that the fire was an accident, or that the defendant is a victim of mistaken identification. Sometimes, defense attorneys will try to demonstrate that the fire was not the result of arson, or poke holes in the state’s case to show that the evidence against the defendant is insufficient to carry a conviction. Ultimately, it is up to the prosecutor to determine whether or not an arson charge will get filed. In the past, these charges and convictions for wildfire crimes were rare. In light of the consistent and terrible fires of 2018, it seems that the attitude might change.

Embezzlement in Beverly Hills

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I personally find nothing more irritating than being heckled on the street while I’m running errands or going to the grocery store by someone wanting to sell me something or sign me up for a charity – with one single exception: Girl Scouts. I will stop all day for a Girl Scout troop and buy as many thin mints as my body can carry. Perhaps for you, it’s samosas or shortbread cookies? Either way, one woman out in Santa Clarita California loved the profits the troops derived from selling their wares is accused of embezzling over $93,000.00  from both the Girl Scouts and a Beverly Hills cancer treatment center.

Patricia Cascione, age 52, pled guilty to embezzlement charges during her arraignment.  From March  2013  through February 2017,  the former accountant is accused of using over $58,000 from the Girls Scouts accounts for her own personal use, and then also diverted over $34,000 in donations from the Cancer Center to one of her Girls Scouts accounts in another attempt to embezzle the money, according to prosecutors. If she is convicted, she faces up to three years and eight months in prison.

The investigation, which spanned over the course of several months, started when an employee of the Girls Scouts organization reported Ms. Cascione’s suspicious activities directly to the Sheriff’s department. In her past, Cascione had worked as a volunteer treasurer for multiple Girl  Scout troops over the last 20 years. In looking through bank records, law enforcement claims that there was evidence of embezzled funds in the Santa Clarita area chapters, with her attempting to hide embezzlement based on accounting tricks. This investigation led them to look at her relationship with the Beverly Hills Cancer Center, where Cascione was a Chief Financial Officer. Officers allege that she informed the center money would be used for one thing, and then she would deposit it somewhere else by false pretenses.

Since the announcement of Ms. Cascione’s arrest for her behavior, the Sheriff’s office has received phone calls about potential victims of Ms. Cascione and her ‘funny money,’ including her involvement with various youth sports activities in the area. This incident isn’t the only one threatening your Tagalongs. In Seattle, various troops have been targeted for crimes, including at least one incident of attempted armed robbery. Two men with a gun tried to rob two Girl Scouts selling cookies in Tacoma. Luckily, the men fled the scene, leaving with neither cookies nor cash. Other troops have reported losing money after being paid with counterfeit bills or having boxes stolen directly from their booths.

The money goes to pay the baker for the cookies themselves, and then they keep any excess for the local troops, as they are not funded by the national group. Over half the local money raised comes from cookie sales. Troops use it however they see fit, but many use it for suppliers or to help pay for uniforms. It also helps defray the costs of activities, like horseback riding or camping.

Plains Oil Spill in California

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Corporate crimes are becoming increasingly common as the public starts demanding more accountability for the harms perpetuated by companies. In California this week, after a four-month-long trial, a Santa Barbara County jury found a Texas company guilty of nine crimes for their role in the 2015 oil spill at Refugio Beach, the worst California oil spill in over two decades.

The spill ended up spreading oil across 4 miles of California coastline. Beaches were closed for months when 123,000 gallons of highly pressurized crude oil spilled onto beaches and into the sea when a 24-inch pipeline carrying oil offshore onto land ruptured. The jury found that the Houston-based oil company failed to properly maintain its pipeline. The jury also found the company guilty of eight misdemeanors, many of which dealt with the environmental damage the spill caused, such as killing mammals and harming protected seabirds.

Immediately after the oil spill, the company, Plains All-American Pipeline, paid for the clean-up efforts and apologized, but has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The clean-up cost around $335 million, not including lost revenues. The company released a statement emphasizing the fact that the jury did not find the company guilty of any  ‘knowing misconduct,’ and continues to claim that the pipeline operations met or exceeded legal industry standards. Plains now faces a criminal fine on top of the costs for clean-up, although the exact amount will not be determined until a final sentencing hearing, scheduled for mid-December.

Plains accused state prosecutors of attempting to criminalize an unfortunate accident. But during the investigation, prosecutors found that Plains made multiple preventable errors which exacerbated the effects of the spill, including failing to detect the rupture and responding too slowly. Workers were found to have turned off the alarm that would have signaled a leak and restarted the line after it had automatically shut down. Plains claims it is still considering legal options and might file an appeal based on the felony charge issued by the jury. Plains had previously been indicted on 46 counts, including four felony charges, and 42 misdemeanor charges. Throughout the course of the litigation, the judge dismissed multiple claims.

Its legal woes are not limited to the state, though. It still faces fines from the U.S. government, as well as a federal class-action lawsuit by individuals who owned beachfront properties, commercial fishermen, other members of the oil and gas industry, and oil workers who lost their jobs as a direct result of the spill. The city of Santa Barbara has filed its own separate lawsuit seeking $2.1 million in compensation against the company, claiming that millions were lost in tax revenue due to the slump in tourists. And while the pipeline in question has been permanently shut down, Plains has re-applied for a pipeline replacement in almost the same position. State and city workers claim they will oppose the application, stating that it gives the company the opportunity to spill again. Plains has an uphill battle: currently, 69 percent of Californians oppose any new offshore drilling projects.

If the jury’s verdict is upheld, it could face over $1.5 million in fines, on top of the millions it has spent in clean-up and litigation fees.

Crime and Celebrities

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Criminal defense and celebrities often intersect. Whether it is tax fraud or evasion, issues with drugs and alcohol, or often more grisly features, there is no shortage of drama in Hollywood. Lately, there have been several crimes or criminal updates dealing with notorious figures.

            First, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s son recently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he held his roommate at knifepoint in Phoenix. He had previously been arrested for suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, unlawful imprisonment, marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. The prosecution apparently extended a plea deal for a lesser charge. Apparently, Van Damme’s son became upset with the roommate after he answered the door. So, he grabbed a knife, threatened the roommate and prevented him from leaving.

 Over in Connecticut, one of the creeps busted in the scandal where all the celebrities were hacked and their personal photos were published is asking for leniency at his upcoming sentencing hearing. He pleaded guilty back in April for one charge of unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information and was one of four hackers charged in the leaking incident. He and his co-defendants developed a phishing scheme to enable them to hack into over 250 iCloud accounts, including multiple celebrities, back in 2013 and 2014. His cohorts were sentenced between 9 and 18 months in prison over the last year.

 Another celebrity’s son has run into trouble – last week, Hall of Fame NFL Quarterback Dan Marino’s son was arrested in Florida for a DUI, with a blood alcohol content at almost three times the legal limit, according to police. He was apparently involved in erratic driving which caught the eye of an officer who pulled him over. He was found with glassy eyes, smelled like alcohol and his speech was slurred, according to reports. He has posted bond and has since entered a not guilty plea. Given that it’s his first offense, and no one was hurt, he likely won’t spend any time in jail if he is convicted or pleas.

 Earlier this summer, Heather Locklear was arrested on suspicion of fighting with first responders – again. She appeared to be extremely intoxicated when police came to her house to look into a dispute between Locklear and family or friends, according to the Ventura County  Sheriff’s department. Allegedly, Locklear kicked one of the deputies, and then kicked a paramedic who had been called to check on her. She was booked on two misdemeanor battery counts, and upon release, checked into a treatment facility, according to sources close to Locklear. She is currently on trial for similar conduct back in February. Her next appearance will be on August 30. 

 Finally, an old case has been making waves recently. John Lennon’s killer was up for parole – again (for the 10th time to be precise). Beatles fans held rallies and asked the state Parole Board to deny Mark David Chapman parole for the murder. Chapman, currently 63 years old, was charged with second-degree murder after he shot John Lennon at close range five times with hollow-point bullets. He eventually pleads guilty over his attorney’s objections and concerns over Chapman’s sanity. Both John Lennon’s fans and wife, Yoko Ono, have lodged objections with the Parole Board in the past, urging them to deny his parole. 

School-to-Prison Pipeline?

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You might have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students of color or of low socioeconomic status are more likely to become incarcerated due to the disproportionately harsh discipline found in schools. In Riverside County, California, one program has come under fire as critics say that it exacerbates this problem.

Riverside County has established the Youth Accountability Team Program, (YAT program) run by the local probation department, to counsel ‘at risk’ youth and administer six-months of supervision, designed to prevent them from engaging in criminal activity. But the ACLU has filed a lawsuit alleging that the program fails to inform students and their parents that the program actually institutes punishment far beyond any basic school disciplinary program. The program has been accused of being used for things that are hardly considered disciplinary issues, much fewer crimes – things like earning bad grades or being late to class have been punished by the program. One student was referred to the program for missing class and being ‘easily persuaded by others.’ Other students have been referred for mere disrespect to teachers or their fellow students.

The suit also alleges that participants in the program are usually not given sufficient information before they sign a contract which allows a government entity to subject the student to monitoring, drug testing, and searches. The program has also been used against students of color, leading critics to argue that the program is instituted discriminately. Black students comprise about 16 percent of the student population in California but represented over one-third of the number of students who had been suspended or expelled, according to the Office for Civil Rights. Black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls, and twice that of white boys. The bias is already there, the ACLU argues. The YAT program just makes it worse.

Because of the scope of the YAT program, lawyers have claimed that it is a violation of students’ 4th Amendment rights because they frequently do not give a knowing, voluntary consent to things like searches. Law enforcement officials have admitted that the students ‘get into the system’ by having their fingerprints and photographs taken, and the former D.A. relished the idea, saying that all kinds of surveillance could be done without permission from a judge – including wire-tapping telephones.  All of these matters tend to compound the problems leading to the school to prison pipeline.

Advocates of the 17-year old program (currently instituted in 17 California counties) argue that it has had only positive impacts, and has successfully diverted students from the criminal justice system. But students who were actually involved with YAT report a different perspective, alleging that instead of mentorship, they are subjected to monitoring and interrogation, often during school hours, forcing them to miss class. The YAT program also maintains records of its students beyond the conclusion of the program. A student’s failure to complete the program successfully could be used against him or her in the future if they are found to have committed a crime later on.

Overall, the YAT program is arguably ineffective. It imposes far harsher punishments in a far more discriminatory fashion than regular school discipline. In fact, it often includes more strict requirements than juvenile probation. There are multiple approaches to combating the school-to-prison pipeline. Overall, the YAT program appears to be a bad one.

SCOTUS and the 2nd Amendment – A Primer

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Between all the news on gun violence, the shooting in Toronto, and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s purported opinion on guns and the 2nd amendment, a primer on the Supreme Court and gun rights might be useful.

Generally speaking, there is very little case law from the Supreme Court concerning the second amendment and gun laws. But within the latter part of the 20th century, litigation concerning whether the right to bear arms was an individual right or the right for militia members became more frequent. In 1991, Former Chief Justice Warren Burger famously referred to the Second Amendment of “one of the greatest pieces of fraud… on the American public by special interest groups” in his lifetime.

In 2008, the 2nd Amendment was clarified by the Court’s holding in District of Columbia v. Heller, when it announced that there is an individual right to have a gun in someone’s house for their own defense. This holding was re-affirmed and applied to the states and the federal government in a subsequent case. But, there are limitations to the right (just as there are limitations to the other rights, particularly the First Amendment). The Heller court made it clear that the 2nd Amendment does not bar the government from being able to regulate firearms, and provided examples: the government can limit access to felons or the mentally ill, or in certain places like government buildings. There can also be terms and conditions or other qualifications on the commercial acquisition of guns.

Yet, since Heller, the Court appears reluctant to hear any more 2nd amendment cases. The Court has refused to hear a California case on its waiting-period and a challenge to a ban on concealed-carry weapons outside of the home. It’s also refused to hear cases regarding bans on assault weapons or individuals accused of domestic violence. Lately, though, the Justices did hear a case concerning the straw purchase of someone with a record of domestic violence in a 5-to-4 decision. The Court held that they cannot get a third party to purchase a gun on their behalf.

There are some theories as to why the Court has been so historically reluctant to address the issue of gun rights further. Perhaps they believe that their holding was sufficiently clear in Heller, and there is no need to wade into the bog further. Or, perhaps they believe that some issues should be clarified, but they are not sure they would get the votes to deliver justice. The Court requires four votes to hear cases, and in the past, it has apparently lacked the numbers to grant a review, often because of Kennedy’s unsure vote. Or (most likely) perhaps it is because the Justices themselves have continuously evolving opinions on the matter, and are hesitant to turn that vacillation into precedent.

Regardless, it is clear that the newest nominee has pretty strong feelings on the Second Amendment’s position in the Constitution. He reportedly believes that there is very little room for any gun control that would be constitutional. In one opinion, he likened a ban or regulation on a type of firearms as equivalent to a ban on a category of speech. It appears that in the future, Kavanaugh would be a vote in favor of hearing a challenge to a firearms regulation, which could have a significant impact on the state of gun laws in the United States in the next few decades.

Opioid Criminal Defendants

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The opioid crisis across the country is something that all levels of government – from city mayors up to the White House – have been grappling with for the past year. Fatal overdoses have overwhelmed municipal resources, and now there are fingers pointing at the powerful pharmaceutical drug lobby. Yet the crisis continues to evolve, with more people getting swept up in its negative side effects – bystanders to fatal overdoses getting criminally charged.

In one case out of Philadelphia, two neighbors were addicted to the same drug – heroin. One night, J.M., the neighbor, asked Alexandria Santa Barbara to get him some heroin and handed her $10.00. She got the heroine for him, but it was laced with Fentanyl, a powerful and deadly synthetic drug. Whether or not she knew it, her neighbor would die from this ‘hit’ of heroin. She is now in jail, waiting for her trial on third-degree murder charges.

Delaware County prosecutors have brought the charges of drug delivery resulting in death, a first-degree felony. If convicted, Ms. Santa Barbara faces between 20 and 40 years in prison. She is not the only who has been charged with this third-degree murder crime. In 2013, the number of people charged with this murder from an accidental overdose was 15. In 2017, that number stood at 205. This is a microcosm of reality across the nation. Twenty states have drug-induced murder laws which criminalize when someone helps another get drugs which result in their death. Another 13 states have either created or strengthened their drug-induced homicide regimes.

Most of the existing laws are a vestige of the fight against the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Prosecutors are relying on them more frequently to deter opioid users and sellers – a crisis which has taken over 63,000 Americans in 2016. Of course, the action has staunch critics. Those who are against the use of this law balk at the stretched definition of ‘dealer,’ citing that the person getting charged is usually someone who frequently shared their stash with the victim, and if things had happened differently, the other person could have died instead.

What makes these cases even more unusual is that sometimes, these defendants tried to save the person or called 911 for help. Usually, Good Samaritan laws mean that if someone administers aid, they receive immunity from prosecution. But, drug-induced homicide is an exception to this principle. Critics point to this as having a chilling effect, meaning that someone could die unnecessarily because the supplier was too scared to call for help. They also point to the fact that there is little to no evidence that enforcing these kinds of laws serve as any sort of effective deterrent.

Prosecutors and law enforcement remain sold on it, believing that the threat of serious jail time would scare casual buyers from exchanging money for drugs. The prosecution is always somewhat easier because the state does not have to prove intent. They just have to show that the drugs given to the victim were lethal and caused their death. This makes it even more challenging for criminal defense lawyers to show that their clients were not responsible for the death of an addict.