Nicole Valera – Criminal Defense

Fighting the system, one case at a time…

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?

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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

Less is More


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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

War Veterans and The Trenches of Criminal Defense


American Flag waving

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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

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

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

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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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