Navigating the California Criminal Court System

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Last week I got a call from a client, we can call her Lisa. That’s not her name but we have this whole confidentiality and attorney client privilege thing going on so for purposes of this blog, she is just going to have to be Lisa. Anyway, Lisa just got out of the Orange County Jail a few days ago. Lisa called to tell me that she is getting frustrated because she is trying to do right and follow the court’s orders but the system seems to keep putting up roadblocks. She tells me “it’s almost like they won’t let you comply” and that it kind of “feels like a setup”.

I reassured Lisa that although it feels this way sometimes, there is no conspiracy to send her to prison on false probation violations and that as long as she follows through with what she is ordered to do, we can keep her out of jail, get her off probation, and then make motions to clean her record such as a PC 17b motion to reduce her felony charges to misdemeanors and PC 1203.4 motions to withdraw her guilty pleas and have her cases dismissed. Lisa keeps telling me the glass is half empty and I keep telling her that it is actually half full. After we go in circles for a few minutes I decide it’s time to identify the problem and solve it, that is after all what she is paying me for.

So I ask her, “why do you think the court is making it impossible for you to comply with the judge’s orders?” Lisa tells me that when she was in jail a few months ago the judge gave her a big lecture and said that this was her last chance and if she didn’t comply with her probation this time around she faced multiple years in state prison. I agreed and reminded Lisa that although I could always argue for more chances sooner or later the judge would get sick of it and send her to prison and this just might be the time. I explained that this really could be her last chance because she had served almost 365 days of county time on her felony case so any future violations would like result in the imposition of a prison term. Lisa then told me she was well aware because all the “girls” at the Orange County Jail told her the same thing. This was her second probation violation and that third trip to C58 would probably end up with her on a chain to Chino. Lisa then told me “I can’t go to prison, but I fel like there is nothing I can do to stop it. For the first time in my life I am trying to do everything the judge ordered because I am scared to death but they won’t let me comply!”

Apparently when Lisa reported to her probation officer within 72 hours of her release from custody, as ordered by the Court, her probation officer reviewed her terms of probation. Her PO reminded her that one of the key elements of her probation was to complete the SB-38 program or the multiple offender 18 month DUI program. So Lisa went straight from her PO’s office to the Westminster courthouse to get enrolled. After waiting in line for an hour or so the alcohol counselor sat down with Lisa and said, “sorry, I can’t enroll you, you need to go back to see your PO”. Lisa went back to her PO, sat in the lobby for an hour or so, waited for the officer of the day, and was ultimately told, “you need to enroll in your DUI program or you will be in violation of your probation and then we will have to send you to prison so go enroll now”.

So basically she knew she would go to prison if she didn’t enroll, but the court wouldn’t let her enroll. I was starting to understand why she felt the way she did. I reviewed my notes from our last court date and I couldn’t understand what the hold up was. The judge in C58 had reinstated her probation and ordered her reinstated into the alcohol program. The judge ordered her to report to probation upon her release and she had done that. Why wouldn’t they let her enroll? Maybe it was just a misunderstanding. Maybe the court staff was giving her a hard time and she just needed her attorney present to make sure there was no funny business going on. I told Lisa I would head for the courthouse, figure out what was wrong, and fix it.

So fast forward to this morning. I head down to the Westminster courthouse at 8am and start asking questions. My first stop was at the clerk’s office for a docket. I get a full printout on the case including the court’s orders from sentencing when the violation was admitted. At this point I’m thinking this is going to be an easy project and I will be grabbing breakfast on the way back to the office in no time. The order is perfectly clear according to the docket. Defendant admits violation of probation, sentenced to x days in the county jail. Defendant reinstated on probation and ordered to re-enroll in the 18 month DUI program. Armed with the docket I head over to the alcohol counselor’s office to get a referral for Lisa.

At the health office I throw the docket in the basket and have a seat. Now as an attorney, I usually get priority in line. Whether it’s the clerk’s office, the line to get through security, the cashier, the health office for referrals, collections, community service, victim witness, whatever, attorneys usually get to cut the line. The sad part is even with cutting the line it still takes forever. Our court system, like all things run by the government, is just so pathetically ineffecient.  Whenever I am forced to wait an hour to have my name called I always remind myself that if it’s this slow and frustrating for me as a lawyer with a fastpass and a good understanding of the system, just imagine how frustrating it must be for a client. Imagine spending four hours instead of one and knowing that when this mess of a system drags you into non compliance, you go to jail. This usually reminds me to count my blessings and smile and be friendly to the over worked county employee when they finally do call my case.

So they call Lisa’s name, I stand up and say “that’s me, I’m Lisa” and in we go to get the referral. After a few clicks on the county computer (built in 1987 and armed with the latest DOS software no doubt) the health officer tells me that we have a problem. Even though the order says Lisa is reinstated, and the judge said Lisa was reinstated, she’s not resinstated. Part of me wants to knock over the $46 county desk and scream but I politely ask why and how do we fix it. Turns out that the docket I was holding was for only one of Lisa’s DUI cases and the county computer had designated one of her other cases as her “primary case”. I was told that to get reinstated we would need a docket on the primary case showing the same order. We would also need new orders on both cases showing that the program was to run concurrent in each case or she would have to complete the program twice.  Love it, but ok, easy enough, I will have the case sent back into court, get the judge to make the order and come back.

So my next stop is back to the clerks office. Again no line for attorneys and again it takes about 20 mintues. Once the clerk pulls up the “primary case” I am told that we could have a new problem. Because the primary case is a felony and it’s post conviciton the court’s file is in Santa Ana not Westminster. I tried to explain the situation to the clerk and the clerk was sympathetic and said she would try to send me in to see the judge in Westminster but before we could do that I would need to visit the probation department for a golden ticket.

A golden ticket? Like in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Seriously? The clerk resassured me that yes, I really did need a golden ticket or there was no chance I was going to see a judge today. She even reached over to the trashcan and pulled one out to show me what I needed. At this point it’s about 10AM and I’m quickly realizing this is not going to be a quick morning in court. So I’m off to get a golden ticket. On my way up stairs to the probation department I’m not quite sure if I should be singing the hokey pokey or a willie wonka tune but either way, this is ridiculous.

Once I get to the probation department its like starting over. I try to explain the situation to the probation officer on duty and I get a blank stare. I try again and it starts to sink in. Oh I get it, she wants to comply but the paperwork isn’t in order, well she needs to go back to Santa Ana because that ‘s the court that made the last order. I then explained again that the clerk downstairs was willing to send the case’s into court today so Lisa could get started if only I could get a golden ticket. I was then asked to wait outside. You put your right foot in you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about…..

Another period of waiting and then it happens, I’m going to Hollywood. A friendly probation officer comes out with literally, a golden ticket. Im looking everywhere for Ryan Seacrest for a man hug but I can’t find him anywhere so I decided to just head back down to the clerk’s office to take care of business.

Back at the clerk’s office I’m invicible, I have a golden ticket let’s do this thing! The clerk works up the cases and sends me up to court. About 11AM the case makes it’s way up and about 1130 my case gets called. At this point I have told the story so many times in one morning that I’m starting to sound a little manic. The judge listens and says, Oooh this sounds like a C58 issue, maybe you should head to Santa Ana tomorrow. I literally felt like I just made a wrong turn in a video game and my whole morning’s worth of progress was gone. Apparently my frustration was pretty visible because the judge was kind enough at that point to inquire further. Can we put this on second call? Although this means more delays, it’s actually a good thing, it means it still might happen today instead of starting over from scratch so I thank the judge profusely and have a seat.

About 1145 our probation officer is in court explaining the situation. To everyone’s surprise the Probation Department’s version of the story is the same as the Defense Attorney’s version. (Trust me this is rare) The District Attorney doesn’t even object! With all this agreement the soundtrack in my head is starting to shift. Im feeling less hokey pokey and more kumbaya. And then it happens, Lisa is ordered reinstated on her primary case, the new dockets are prepared showing the order is concurrent and justice is served hot and fresh.

If you are thinking I dance out of there at this point you are missing the lesson of this story. The job is not done! Now it’s time to take the new and improved orders back to the alcohol counselor and see if they actually work. So it’s another wait and THEN, celebrate good times Woohoo. Now go get your program done Lisa.

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