Nicole Valera – Criminal Defense

Fighting the system, one case at a time…

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!”

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

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

Less is More


Blue ribbon

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Sometimes being a good criminal defense lawyer means saying less is more. That’s probably the best lesson I ever learned when I first started out, and it has carried me to many victories.  I think the pressure to speak and ask questions is high, especially when 1) you don’t think your client trusts you, and/or 2) Your client is paying you a lot of money and you feel like you have to sing for your supper.

Yesterday I won a juvenile court adjudication/trial for a marijuana possession charge.  The police department had put up a fight when I requested the police report (as I documented on my private Facebook page a couple of days ago), so I just sent out a subpoena and they faxed the report over. I can honestly say I have NEVER had to subpoena an initial report.  EVER.  I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Anyway, when I got the report I was pleasantly surprised.  I don’t know if this is just the cynical criminal defense attorney in me, but maybe they didn’t want to send me the report because they realized how weak it is.  Anyway, I ended up doing the trial, even though my client was offered a diversion.  He felt very strongly about standing up for his principle and having his day in court.  I can’t agree more.  But sometimes you have to do a risk analysis, no matter how strong your principle is.  Even though I felt the case to be weak the diversion was tempting.

I have to say that the judge/referee in this case was extremely fair.  One thing you learn is how to size up your bench officer, but this is the first time I’d been in front of him and I didn’t know anyone else who had.  Even though I had a solid defense I proceeded with caution.  Although it was prudent, it wasn’t needed.  He could tell right away where the big hole was in the case, I asked 2 questions to clarify, and he dismissed it upon my 1118.1 motion.

So again, less is more.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Juvenile Criminal Defense, The Latest, Wins | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Criminal Defense Pet Peeves.


One of my biggest pet peeves as a criminal defense attorney is when some prosecutors think that just because a defendant has the opportunity to get a case dismissed through a deferred entry of judgment program, that they shouldn’t fight the case.

What I mean is this: In the criminal defense world in california there are drug programs where once successfully completed, can lead to dismissal. One of them being PC 1000, or DEJ (Deferred Entry of Judgment). If the client is eligible, after taking approximately 20 weeks of classes and staying out of trouble for 18 months, the court will dismiss the case. Sounds great, right? Most of the time it is, and I have seen many clients benefit from such programs. HOWEVER, I can’t STAND when I have a drug possession case where the stop is bad, meaning illegal under the 4th Amendment and prevailing case law, and the prosecutors think that my client should just take the deal.

Why should my client have to do a program AT ALL when he was stopped and searched illegally? Why should my client roll over when THE PROSECUTORS have the burden to prove that the warrantless search was legal? And the best part is that when I challenge the stop and the subsequent search, I get eyes rolled at me, called up to the bench and asked, “Why are we doing this motion?”

I personally think that questions should not be directed at me as the criminal defense attorney, but rather the prosecutor whose burden it is to prove the legality of the search. BUT, if i have to answer that question, here’s my answer:

The reason I am challenging the validity of the search on behalf of my client is due to the fact that they have the constitutional right to be protected from illegal search and seizures. We ALL enjoy that right. I view it as my responsibility to challenge injustices wherever they exist, whether it is in a simple marijuana possession case, or a complex murder case.

And I will NOT advise a client to roll over and take a deal out of convenience for the court.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Minor Infractions | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saved by the Bell


I was having a really rough week.  As a criminal defense attorney, you deal with all sorts of cases:  sex crimes, juvenile cases, DUI, domestic violence, drug possession, etc, etc.   And on top of that you often have to be in 2 places at the same time (if you’re lucky enough to be that busy, which thankfully, I am).  Because of the hurdles and hoops I must sometimes jump through, along with the constant demand for my time and attention, it can be easy to lose sight of why I am a criminal defense lawyer.  And today on the way back from criminal court, I was starting to feel that way – distracted with daily procedure and protocol.  Frustrated and stressed out.

Then the phone rang, but I was unable to pick it up in time.  They left a voicemail.   It was the mother of a juvenile client I had represented in a potentially life changing case. She was calling to thank me and left a heart felt message that almost brought tears to my eyes.  Cheesy I know.  But it snapped me right back onto the right path and reminded me of why I love being a criminal defense attorney – even through all the procedure, the stress, the frustration, the anxiety – I am able to make a difference, and that feels good.

March 19, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Juvenile Criminal Defense, THIS is why it's worth it | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Criminal Defense: Vile? Or Necessary?


US Supreme Court

Image by dbking via Flickr

I had known in law school that I wanted to practice criminal defense and the minute I passed the bar I applied to and was accepted for employment with the Los Angeles County Public Defender‘s Office. I had clerked there for 2 years in law school and was so excited to be able to finally do what I was sure I would love.

And I did love it. Only when I told other people (even other lawyers) that I was a criminal defense attorney, most people looked at me with shock in their face. This shock did not come from the fact that I was young (I was 26 when I started practicing law), but from the fact that I was practicing (in their opinion), a vile and despicable area of law. I fielded (and continue to field) questions like, “How do you sleep at night?” “How can you live with yourself?” “Aren’t you scared of your clients?” “Well you plead them all guilty automatically if they’re guilty, right?”

I don’t really look at criminal defense that way. Some people have the luxury of making it a black and white issue. I do not. My job is to make sure that the constitution is protected. My job is to make sure that the constitution isn’t just a lot of words written down in a book, but an actual way of life. My job is to prevent the police from just stopping you on the street for no reason. My job is to prevent the government from locking you up without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. My job is to prevent us from living in a police state. My job is to make sure that laziness and bureaucracy do not take precedence over your rights and what is just. My job…is hard.

I am in private practice now and my philosophy hasn’t changed. Of course there is a business aspect to it, but I make sure that my clients rights come first, sometimes before my own needs, and of course, within reason. It is easy for the people in ivory towers and the talking heads to brand someone a criminal, call them guilty, and move on to the next news story about the latest celebrity scandal. But people are not perfect, and you never know when a simple mistake, a bad decision, an unfortunate circumstance, or bad timing, can put you in a position where you or your loved one are forced to defend your reputation, your freedom, and even your life. If you or someone you loved were ever to be in that situation, wouldn’t you want someone who didn’t pass judgment on you? Wouldn’t you want someone who treated you like a human being, and respected and revered the constitution and all the rights and liberties it bestows on everyone here in America? I would.

So, to answer one of the oft asked questions – I sleep just fine at night.

January 22, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Minor Infractions, THIS is why it's worth it | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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