Nicole Valera – Criminal Defense

Fighting the system, one case at a time…

I was pulled over for a DUI…


…no, I didn’t get arrested.  But I do think that the universe is trying to tell me something – this is the 3rd time in the past 6 months that I have been pulled over for a DUI.  The first two times were the result of a DUI checkpoint.  And no, I’m not driving around the streets drunk out of my mind trying to get arrested.   I thought being a criminal defense attorney would bring interesting insight to this topic and wanted to share it with you.

Saturday night, a friend of mine had a party to celebrate finishing a triathlon.   She lived close by but not within cabbing distance so I agreed that I would be the designated driver.

We get to the party between 8-9pm.  I had some snacks, but didn’t eat too much as I had eaten a big dinner at around 7.  I had one beer – an Amstel Light to be exact.  My other friends were drinking, we were all having a good time, congratulating the triathlete and hanging out.  I did not consume any more alcohol.

At around midnight the party starts to thin out.  A couple people decide to go to a nearby bar and they invite us.  Myself and my friend (whose car I’m driving) decide to meet them over there.  My friend has another beer and we call it a night at around last call.

We stop and get some late night McDonalds (ugh, I know), and head home.  I stop at a red light at an intersection which serves as the border between two cities.  I look in my rearview and see a patrol vehicle.  He’s not lit up.  I tell my friend there’s a cop behind us.  She’s not too worried since she knows I’m fine and I haven’t been drinking.

The light turns green and I cross the intersection from one city into the next.  The minute I hit the other side of the street, I see the lights flashing in the rear view.  I signal to pull over and he directs me over the loud speaker to pull into a side street and off the main road.  I do so.  I put the car in park, roll down the windows and place both hands on the steering wheel.  

The officer comes up and shines his flashlight in my face.  I had Lasik surgery a few years back so my eyes are sensitive to light.  I flinch a bit and he asks for my drivers license.

Me: My license is in my purse which is in the backseat.  I’m going to reach back and get it.

Officer: Ok. (He shines the light in the back seat where my purse is.)

I open my wallet up and smack dab right next to my ID is my bar card.  He’s shining the light into my wallet (probably looking for contraband that isn’t there).  I pull the ID out.  I have no idea if he sees the bar card. Nor am I about to trot it out.

Officer: I need your registration and insurance as well.

My friend opens up her glove compartment – he shines a light into the glove compartment.  It’s chock full of papers.  She’s having problems locating the registration.  She has the insurance.

Officer: I pulled you over because you were weaving within your lane.  And because your back brake light is out.

Me: I wasn’t aware of the brake light – this isn’t my car.

UHHHHH, I WASN’T WEAVING!  And even if I was, weaving *within* my lane is not illegal.  It’s when those tires cross the lines that weaving becomes a problem.

Me: We picked up McDonalds and I might have reached for a french fry.

I am careful not to make an admissions, although, really would it have mattered? I can just imagine how the police report would’ve read, “Suspect admitted to weaving as she was reaching for a french fry.

Officer: Have you been drinking?

Me: I had a beer between 8-9pm.

Silence.  I’ll admit my heart pounded a bit.  Would I get to do the FST’S?!?  Would he pull me out of the car??

Officer: Ok, well, you’re not drunk, so I’ll let you go. I won’t write you a ticket, but get that tail light fixed.

Me: Thank you, Officer.

So what did we learn here?

1.  Don’t ask questions – most police officers I talk to tell me that annoys them.  The “What’s this about, Officer??” question probably gets under their skin.  Let them ask the questions.

2.  Check your friends brake lights before you drive her car to a party.  I’m kidding, but not really.  Small traffic infractions (failed to signal, running a stop sign, etc) and car malfunctions are the easiest form of probable cause to pull you over.

3.  Don’t drink and drive!  Although, technically, as I say in my voir dire, drinking and driving itself is not illegal.  Driving while under the influence (Ca Vehicle Code Section 23152(a)), and/or driving with a blood alcohol content above a .08% (Ca Vehicle Code Section 23152(b)) in California IS illegal, however.  It’s a nuance that is important if you have a client whose blood alcohol content is below the .08% but they are still charged with the (a) count.

Anyway, it was a fascinating experience.  Next week I have jury duty – and I’m sure that it will be fascinating as well.  Of course, I probably won’t get picked, but one can dream, no…?

November 10, 2010 Posted by | DUI | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Phaedra Parks: Real Housewife of Atlanta? Or Real Waste of an Opportunity?


I hate to admit it, but I am an avid fan of Bravo TV’s, Real Housewives of Atlanta.   The outfits, the makeup, the shopping, the bickering, the pop songs and wigs … what a great formula for irresistible trash TV! (Don’t judge me, I also read – just finished “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen.  It’s all about balance).  So of course I was more than excited about this upcoming season as I heard that an attorney (and a criminal defense attorney at that!) would be featured as one of the Housewives.   I was wondering what kind of casting Bravo had done – would she be a cliche?  

Episode 2 of Season 3 was entitled “Model Behavior”.  They introduced the final housewife, who is in fact, a model.  It was of course, a play on words as good behavior is always an issue with the any of the housewives.  This episode also shows Phaedra Parks in her office and that particular scene surprised me.

Living in Los Angeles, I am surprised I don’t bump into a reality TV production crew on every street corner.  When I was a public defender, I heard rumors of a reality show focusing on some of the attorneys in that office.  Another time there was an email being sent around our office about some filmmakers who wanted to do a documentary on the lives of public defenders.  My understanding was that most of these projects got shot down because of issues of confidentiality.  How would the producers of these projects be able to capture criminal defense attorneys in their natural habitat?  Getting cameras in a courtroom would be problematic, and certainly cameras wouldn’t be allowed into lockup or during client interviews…

So that was why I was so surprised with that particular scene.  I’m assuming she had him sign a waiver of confidentiality for that particular scene.  Even still…I found it disturbing.  She allowed her client to make a statement about his case ON CAMERA.

I spend most of my time telling my clients not to say anything to anybody, ESPECIALLY if they know they are being taped or recorded.  That is my gut instinct as a criminal defense attorney – the less statements from your client, the easier your job is, the better you can protect them.

Of course her clients’ statement was a denial, and was it just me, or did the whole thing seem staged?  I’m not questioning his innocence, because after all, we are ALL innocent until proven guilty, right?  And I shouldn’t be surprised that reality shows are often staged…it’s just that the whole scene just didn’t sit right for me.

I understand that these women go on these shows to promote themselves and maybe make some cash (Don’t be Tardy for the Party – Woaaaahhhh, woaaahhh), but that scene got to me.  I don’t care that she’s married to an ex-felon, and I don’t care that she used to represent Bobby Brown (and as Nene artfully pointed out – “EXCUSE ME, Bobby Brown was 10 years ago!”).  But if she wanted to expose the inequalities of the criminal justice system, she wasn’t doing that in that scene.  She was just promoting herself  – that was all about how great Phaedra was – you see her receptionist in the front of her posh office which appears to be in a highrise building.  She meets him in a tastefully appointed conference room, dressed to the nines, makeup perfect, and not a hair out of place.  She posts something on Bravo’s website “Phaedra on Felons” but the comment seems more like an after thought and an opportunity to – surprise – promote herself further and justify her upcoming nuptials to an ex-felon.

First of all – no one cares – you’re not the first attorney to marry a client or an ex-felon, and you probably won’t be the last.  Secondly – what a waste of a unique opportunity!  You’ve got a national platform to talk about the criminal justice system and instead you sandwich that between 2 paragraphs about your fiancee on Bravo’s website?!?

What a Real waste.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Hmm...inneresting... | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Law & Order? I don’t think so – Prosecutorial Misconduct in California


My last post criticized the LA Times – this post is going to praise them.  An article about prosecutorial misconduct! As criminal defense trial lawyers, we know it happens – we hear about it when it happens to our friends and colleagues, and we see it for ourselves.  I have often been asked  how I can live with myself doing the job that I do –  Well this article highlights one of the most important reasons I am a criminal defense attorney:  to defend the public against people like this.  

Now don’t get me wrong – I have had the pleasure of going up against many fine and ethical prosecutors.  In my personal experience, most prosecutors have an excellent standard of ethics.  It’s the ones who you know are playing hide the ball – that are pushing you and your client towards trial with the knowledge that they can’t prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, when really, they should either be dismissing or offering you a really REALLY good deal.  Now I know that behavior may not be defined as prosecutorial misconduct by an appellate court, but I happen to think that it’s shady.  Sometimes our opinions may differ – I may think they have a weak case, they may look at it differently – but that’s not the situation I’m talking about.  It the situations where they KNOW they haven’t been able to speak to a key witness, or where they spring a suggestive six pack color lineup on you during trial where identification is the defense (that happened to me in my first trial EVER) – those are the situations I’m talking about.

What was most disturbing to me about the article, wasn’t that it happens- but that reprimand by the State Bar is so infrequent.  6 out of the 707 cases of prosecutorial misconduct over the past 12 years have been disciplined.  Only 6.  Keep in mind that these are just the cases that are reported – if a court finds the misconduct to be harmless, they are not required to forward this finding to the State Bar.  They should be.

After reading this article, I hope the general public starts to understand how important a criminal defense attorneys job is.  I feel like I’m always whining about how under appreciated we are, but maybe there’s a good reason for it.  I had a prosecutor friend say to me the other day, “You should come over to the side of Law & Order.”  And my response was, “I already am!”

October 5, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Hmm...inneresting..., The Latest | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Press – Friend and Foe


I woke up this morning to get ready to go to court – just have one  matter and I will be done in court for the day.  I was going through my morning routine, which includes reading the news, getting my breakfast ready, picking out the clothes I am going to wear, when I came across this LA Times Article “Judge Halts Execution of Rapist and Murder”.  I am an opponent of the death penalty so this article piqued my interest, and especially the way the article was titled.

That title is meant to get you incensed – how on earth could a judge do such a thing? Save a rapist?  Save a murderer? Halt this monsters’ execution?

But if you read the article, it’s about the legality of the method in which a person is put to death in California. It reveals that recent inmates who have been executed in California may have not been completely anesthetized and may have suffered extreme pain from the cocktail of injections they received.  The way I read it, it suggest that the method in California may be cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional in our great nation.

It’s not about a judge “saving” a murderer or rapist.  The title is the first thing you read – it’s the theme that you carry with you while you read the article.  Will the average reader be able to read that article objectively?  Is the title just meant to grab the readers’ attention? Or is it meant to create fear that our justice system is getting soft and we need to toughen up on crime?  Because I can tell you, from working the front lines, a criminal defense attorneys’ job just gets harder and harder.

In my mind, I’ve always framed the death penalty issue as a human rights issue, and an issue for humanity.  I am sure that there are philosophers out there who can put it more eloquently than I will ever be able to express, so I will simply say that I oppose the death penalty.

The Press can be a friend to a cause as well – take for example, Jose Antonio Vargas and his series on the AIDS epidemic in Washington DC.  His work has inspired the documentary “The Other City”, a powerful film chronicling the real life experiences of those suffering from HIV/AIDS in our nations’ capital.

I don’t think the LA Times article does anything helpful for the anti-death penalty cause, and I have no idea if that was even the point.  I saw the title, was interested, and then immediately annoyed.  That title was there to get me to click on it.  Thoughts?

September 29, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

Juvenile Criminal Defense – 2 very different stories


I had a juvenile criminal case today which I was able to settle favorably.  The minor was a very nice kid, 14 years old, who came from a stable 2 parent, middle class household.   He made a silly mistake and his parents stepped in right away to correct the behavior.  The criminal courts stepped in as well, which cued my entry into the whole thing.  I have hopes that I was able to settle the case in a way that would allow my client to lead a happy and productive life, but also learn from his experience and not repeat the behavior.

Today I spoke with a fellow criminal defense attorney friend of mine who had a 14 year old client – only he was not a juvenile court client, his case was being adjudicated in adult court.  Even though he was not an adult, he was being treated as one. I didn’t get a chance to ask my friend what he was charged with, but for a 14 year old to be in adult court, it was probably a very serious crime, perhaps murder, attempted murder, or something of the sort.

I started to wonder if there were any similarities between her client and mine.  Was it possible that her client came from a middle class background?  From a stable 2 parent household?  Did he go to school?  Did his parents step in with a firm hand the first time he had a brush with the law?

I don’t know, but I am guessing that my client and hers came from very different backgrounds.  That while the above questions could possibly be answered in the affirmative, it was likely that they would not be.  Representing juvenile clients has been some of my most rewarding work as a criminal defense attorney, but it is not without its moments of unbelievable sadness.  It’s sometimes difficult to get out of bed in the morning and make your way to the office or to court.

The best you can do is remember who you are fighting for – the underdog, the under represented, the often misunderstood, and sometimes, the under cared for.   Remembering that makes it easier to keep fighting.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Juvenile Criminal Defense | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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