Nicole Valera – Criminal Defense

Fighting the system, one case at a time…

Why Men Should Wear Man Purses


As a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I spend a LOT of time in security lines.  Being an attorney, I’m usually able to skip to the front.  However, from time to time, I find myself stuck behind men who are taking FOREVER to put their belongings in that little plastic tray that goes on the conveyor belt and into the x-ray machine.

They take their wallet out, then their keys, then their cell phone.  They start to go through the metal detector.  Wooops!  It beeps.  They have to go back – what could be beeping?  Ohhhh, you have all that change in your pocket.  Yes, that’s metal.  It will make the METAL detector beep…

Meanwhile I am tapping my foot behind them, ready to place my purse with ALL my belongings, on the conveyor belt.  So easy!

Men should wear Man Purses like this one:  

 

That way they don’t have an impatient criminal defense attorney behind them…

 

 

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October 28, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Hmm...inneresting... | , , , , , , | 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

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

Never a Dull Moment at a DUI Checkpoint


A sobriety checkpoint in East Haven, CT. Also ...

Image via Wikipedia

After getting stopped at a DUI checkpoint for the 2nd time this year I thought that it was time to blog about it and let you know my perspective which may be unique since I’m a criminal defense attorney.

The first time I was stopped at DUI checkpoint was in Santa Barbara. I had driven up from Los Angeles in order to give a speech at my alma mater UC Santa Barbara – A large part of my speech revolved around how I became a criminal defense attorney. A dear friend of mine, Ashlee, had agreed to come with me, and the free night at Bacara was probably a big draw as well.

I was naive about the traffic and thought that 3 hours would be plenty of time to get there. It wasn’t. I had to start putting on my makeup while sitting in traffic and changed into my suit in the bathroom. I gave my speech and Ashlee and I decided to go back to the hotel right away to shower and change. Right outside of the campus we got stuck in the DUI checkpoint. It was also a license checkpoint and they were stopping every single car. I suppose that’s the new guise now – make it a license checkpoint because then you have a constitutional reason for stopping everyone, whereas if it was only a DUI checkpoint then they would not be able to stop every single car, but instead follow a pattern.

As well pulled into the checkpoint the nice sheriffs deputy asked for my license, which I couldn’t find since in the flurry of rushing to the speech I had frantically thrown every item in the car this way and that. I calmly explained to him I would be happy to look in the trunk for it since I thought that’s where it was. He said ok, followed me to the back of the car and watched as I opened the trunk (which was thankfully free of contraband). I still couldn’t find my wallet. I gave him my drivers license number and he agreed to run it for me. As we were waiting he asked where I was headed and what I was doing in town. I told him I was staying at the Bacara, that I was a lawyer and that I had just given a speech at the university. He asked what kind of law and hesitated. He smiled and said, “Ohhhh, you must be a criminal defense attorney!” I smiled back and he said, “Well, let me know when you want to come to the good side.” I laughed it off and he came back letting me know I was good to go and that I was properly licensed.

Technically he could’ve given me a ticket for driving without my license, despite the fact that I was actually licensed. But the nice deputy didn’t seem to mind so, who am I to argue with the law?

The second time this year I was pulled over in a DUI checkpoint was last night. I was taking my friend’s brother home and the both of them were in my car. The traffic began to get heavy and I looked up to see the DUI checkpoint signs. I saw the motorcycle officers sitting to my left on the corner near the legally required turnout, knowing that just down the street there were more officers waiting to pull over those who were trying to abode the checkpoint.

We started to reminisce about the first time I had been pulled over in a checkpoint (Ashlee was in the car with me again – I’m going to start thinking twice about driving with her…) and as we drove by the motorcycle cops Ashlee decided to give them a nice parade wave.

I looked at her with daggers in my eyes and I said, “What did you wave at them for? Now we’re going to get pulled over for SURE!” She laughed maniacally, and I guess it didn’t matter because I wasn’t intoxicated, but who wants to talk to cops unless they have to?

As I watched several cars in front of us get waved through the checkpoint, I tried to count how many cars in front of me had gone without getting stopped. I was trying to establish that the city of Redondo Beach was complying with the constitutional guidelines set forth for them. I couldn’t figure it out since we had been placed in a single lane there was a gigantic moving truck in front of me blocking my full view.

As expected, we were stopped. I’m almost positive that the motorcycle cops had radioed ahead to the cops at the front to make sure we were stopped. I guess they figured that Ashlee had to be drunk to wave at them during a DUI checkpoint and were thinking that the driver (me) would be drunk as well.

The officer politely (and cheerfully, I might add) asked me for my drivers license. I gave it to him and he immediately asked if I had been drinking. I said no, with a smile and he said, “Just drunk people in the car, huh?” I smiled back at him and said nothing. Ashlee’s brother joked with the cop, “No officer, but we do have a Waver up here in the front” pointing to his sister. The officer laughed and asked if she had perfected her parade wave yet. He handed me back my license and waved me through.

Which brings me to some interesting thoughts – I have often asked a client who is stopped in a checkpoint what the pattern was for pulling cops over. What I mean by that is that cops have to pull over people in a DUI checkpoint with a formula mandated by a supervisor – for example, every 3 cars, or every 4 cars. When I was in that checkpoint, you couldn’t tell what the pattern was just because of the flow of traffic.

Another interesting thought – the officer asked if I had been drinking – if I had said yes I would’ve been pulled out of the car – he didn’t get close enough to smell any alcohol emitting from my breath, nor could he see whether my eyes were bloodshot and/or watery (which they were due to laser surgery that I had years ago). Just that question alone probably gets a lot of people without the officer having to do much work up to that point.

Anyway, Ashlee and I will no longer be driving in the same car. Although it was highly educational, I’ve had enough of going through DUI checkpoints.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | DUI | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

War Veterans and The Trenches of Criminal Defense


American Flag waving

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I finally resolved a very emotionally difficult and legally complicated case. As a criminal defense attorney you try to maintain a professional distance as much as you can, but I do believe that any good criminal defense attorney should put at least a little emotional skin in the game. No one wants a robot for a lawyer.

Anyway, my client was an Iraqi war vet and had completed 2 tours of duty. He had some difficulty transitioning back into normal society and ultimately picked up a serious felony. I had been frustrated with this case for many reasons – the case had dragged on nearly a year – some of it due to my work up of the case and some of it not.

This client was a young vet, mid 20’s. This is not the first time I have represented a young client (I represent minors as young as 12), nor is it the first time I’ve represented a war veteran. However most of the vets I have represented have been from the Vietnam War. A majority of them have been homeless and suffering from substance abuse problems. I’ve had to work with the VA on numerous occasions.

Deep down inside I was afraid this client could’ve turned out like many of my Vietnam War vet clients.

At first blush, that seemed unlikely to happen – my client was young, physically healthy, enrolled in school, had many friends and lots of family. He was not going to end up one of my tattered war vet clients that had been marched into court in handcuffs and jail jumpsuits. But I always wondered what those vets had been like when they were young, just returning from war. What did they do? How did they live? Did they have loved ones to come home to? Did they ever know they would not be able to leave the war behind? Or while in the trenches where some politician had sent them, did they harbor that fear of what their life would become if they made it out alive?

With the President‘s announcement that 50,000 troops will be coming home, the legislature needs to figure out a way to deal with the new generation of vets that may become involved with the criminal justice system. Many will come home with depression, substance abuse problems, and other types of psychological disorders. In California there is no evidence or penal code section that specifically recognizes the admission of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the guilt phase. There are some useful sections for sentencing purposes but I do believe criminal defense attorneys need a tool for trial. My research turned up similarities to the battered women’s syndrome – perhaps we could use that as a model. It is a very real problem that needs a very real solution.

In the meantime, I have hope for my client. He is a good man with hopes and dreams and despite this setback, I think he will make a wonderful life for himself. We were able to resolve this case in a very just manner and I am thankful for that. I had to fight hard for him, but really, it was the least I could do.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | The Latest, THIS is why it's worth it, 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

Rough day at the office


Man, today felt rough.  I had several court appearances in two different courts.  Timing (and timeliness) means a lot in this business and you have to make sure NOT to cultivate a reputation for being late and unreliable.  I had to pay a locksmith a bunch of money and I’m sure that I was swindled somehow, but I was on such a tight schedule that I didn’t really have a choice.  Dealing with the locksmith placed me behind schedule about 30 minutes.   I had several clients who were in custody and I wanted to make sure that I spent enough time with each of them so that they understood what was going on.  Clients inevitably have lots of questions, which is fine.  This can be complicated stuff, and especially when they’re in custody, tensions can be high.  Efficiency is something I learned at the public defender’s office.  Thankfully in private practice I have more time with my clients, but every once in awhile I go right back into the efficiency mode.  That’s usually just when I have to go to court and am juggling a lot of appearances in one day.  It doesn’t happen often as I’m pretty good at managing my calender.  One thing that is always helpful though is being nice, polite, and having a smile on your face – even when you don’t want to.

What DID put a smile on my face was the new website I have is coming along very nicely and the finishing touches are being done as we speak.  It should be up and running by next week!

January 29, 2010 Posted by | General Thoughts, Minor Infractions | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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