Friday, December 19, 2014

Dog Bites and Strict Liability in California

We all love dogs. Well, most of us anyways. There is scientific evidence that supports that dogs are great mental health companions. Socially, they are important to a lot of dog owners' lives. Despite all of the love, dogs can also cause harm to individuals. Indeed, when I was young, and in Tennessee, a dog bit me. There were medical bills, and trauma that followed (even to this day at times).

Like other injury accidents, an owner of a dog can be sued for a dog bite. Under the common law, or laws developed through a number of cases, dog owners were routinely sued under a "strict liability" theory because their dog caused an injury to another. "Strict liability" means that the injured party did not need to prove negligence. It was much easier to prevail.

Dog bite lawsuits pursuant to strict liability under the common law required that the "domestic animal" exhibit dangerous propensities. Typically, dangerous propensities were proven by previous incidents when the dog harmed someone else. But, a dangerous propensity was also shown when the owner knew or should have known that the domestic animal could have caused injury to another person. Domestic animals also included cats, snakes, horses, and other pets. It's important to note that there was a distinction -- with wild animals.

If an owner of an exotic pet injured someone else, they could be held strictly liable without the dangerous propensity element. Thus, if a Las Vegas magician's tiger mauled someone, the magician could be held strictly liable even if the tiger never exhibited signs of having a dangerous nature before the incident. Contrast with the domestic animal lawsuit, a defendant could prevail if he could show that the domestic animal never exhibit dangerous propensities.

Fast forward to today. California enacted statutory law, which provides for strict liability in dog bite cases. There is no need to prove "dangerous propensities." California Civil Code 3342(a) states, in part that:

"The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner' s knowledge of such viciousness."

Does this statute prevent defenses? What if the dog was provoked by the actions of the injured party before the dog bite? Nothing in the Civil Code prevents a defendant from raising "comparative fault" or "assumption of risk" defenses. Therefore, if the plaintiff was a bad apple who hit the dog, the defendant dog owner may have a good case against the mean injured plaintiff.

In the event that you, or someone you know, was injured by a dog bite, it is wise to retain an experienced persona injury attorney. A lot of dog bites are serious. In some instances, plastic surgery is required. Experienced counsel can pursue a claim, most often with a homeowner's insurance policy, after a dog bite. Dogs are important to our lives but medical bills and pain and suffering should be addressed, if you, or someone you know, was a victim of a dog bite. We welcome your calls and questions. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

'Constructive Possession' in Drug Possession Crimes

Both federal and state governments are changing the way drug crimes are prosecuted. Sentencing guidelines that require strict prison terms are being discarded for more court discretion. States are also implementing drug courts, or diversion programs, that allow defendants to enter into drug treatment programs in lieu of jail.  There seems to be an understanding that drug offenders need treatment rather than punishment.

Even with positive changes in California, with respect to drug crimes, because of Proposition 47, which mandated that certain crimes be prosecuted as misdemeanors instead of felonies, there are still situations in which an accused may be wrongfully charged. For example, an individual may not even know that illicit drugs were near or by him/her at the time of his/her arrest.

Health and Safety Code sections 11350, et al prohibits the possession of certain controlled substances. "Possession" is not limited to drugs on a person, like in his pockets, wallet, or belongings. Possession can also be "constructive" or "joint."

"Constructive" possession has been defined in a number of cases on appeal in California. People v. Showers (1968) 68 Cal.2d 639 defined constructive possession as follows:

"The accused has constructive possession when he maintains control or a right to control the contraband. Possession may be imputed when the contraband is found in a location which is immediately and exclusively accessible to the accused and subject to his dominion and control."

"The accused is also deemed to have the same possession as any person actually possessing the narcotic pursuant to his direction or permission where he retains the right to exercise dominion or control over the property. People v. Mardian (1975) 47 Cal.App.3d 1. However, merely being near a drug, or being in association with someone in possession of a drug, in of itself, was insufficient to establish possession under the law. Exercise or control of an area still requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Let's give a hypothetical, when"constructive" possession may be in dispute. Roommate A is living with Roommate B to save money. Roommate A does not abuse drugs. Roommate A is a student with a steady job. Roommate B smokes methamphetamine, but does so privately. Roommate A is unaware of Roommate B's personal habits. The police, on a tip from an informant, execute a search warrant in Roommate A and Roommate B's shared room. Roommate B is on vacation. Roommate A is studying. The police find methamphetamine in Roommate B's drawer, which is near Roommate A's bed. The police arrest Roommate A.

In the hypothetical above, Roommate A may be able to get the case dismissed because he was not in possession of the methamphetamine, including "constructive possession." In spite of the fact that he was near the drawer, and could possibly open the drawer, under California law, Roommate A probably did not exercise dominion or control over the property in the drawer. He didn't have the requisite intent, nor did he exercise control of Roommate B's drawer.

Substance abuse is most often caused by disease and studies have shown that mental health services, not prison, is the best way to combat drug crimes. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to retain a criminal defense attorney if you, or someone you care about, has been charged with a drug crime. Experienced attorneys can see if alternatives to jail are available. Further, if there are facts of the case that suggest an accused may prevail at a preliminary hearing or P.C. 1538 hearing, a criminal defense attorney could aggressively advocate on your behalf. Our office welcomes your calls and questions. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Proposition 213 in Motor Vehicle Accidents

A number of our blog posts have touched upon the subject of prospective clients being injured by the actions of an uninsured motorist. This post will talk about individuals who are uninsured, that happen to get injured by an insured party in a motor vehicle accident.

Back in 1996, California voters passed Proposition 213. The purpose of the proposition: remedy an imbalance in the justice system that resulted in unfairness when an accident occurred between two motorists -- one insured and the other not. The law wanted to encourage insurance, and legal, compliance. So, it precluded uninsured motorists, and drunk drivers, from pursuing noneconomic damages in a lawsuit. Noneconomic damages include, pain and suffering, physical impairment, and disfigurement.

Prior to litigation, when there is a claim open with an insurance company, Proposition 213 can have a serious impact on negotiating a settlement. If a party is uninsured, but bringing a claim, the value of his or her damages are limited. Typically, adjusters will calculate noneconomic, or general damages, in their evaluations. But they will also calculate Proposition 213 if the claimant is uninsured -- they have an incentive to settle it for far less.

Initially, plaintiffs attempted to challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 213. The Equal Protection Clause, First Amendment, and Due Process Clause were all cited as grounds for invalidating Proposition 213. The claims all failed and Proposition 213 was upheld by the California Supreme Court.

Since 1996, the law has been expanded and interpreted broadly -- sometimes unjustly. Of course there are exceptions in place. For example, an uninsured employee driving an employers vehicle, which is not insured, can still recover if they are injured by a third party. A decedent's estate may also pursue general damages if the decedent was uninsured. Nevertheless, Proposition 213 is still applicable today, and important in evaluating a potential personal injury case.

The important take away: make sure you are insured! It is not only the law, it is also in your financial interest. And like our office has stated in other posts, you may as well add "uninsured / underinsured motorist coverage" and "med pay coverage." As always, we would be happy to speak with prospective clients to discuss your potential case in more depth. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Utilizing a Penal Code section 1538, Motion to Suppress, in a DUI Case

Not all criminal cases go to trial. In fact, more often than not, a criminal case will be disposed of prior to a trial. Plea deals are common because they can be beneficial for both the defendant and the People.

But, there are also circumstances when a case can be dismissed prior to a trial. One common motion that can be brought during the pre-trial stages of a case is a Motion to Suppress. Penal Code section 1538 provides the right of an accused to challenge evidence that may have been obtained illegally. Typically if the evidence is suppressed -- like the blood results of a DUI stop -- the case must be dismissed because the evidence is dispositive to the case.

One example of when a Motion to Suppress could be successful is when an officer stops an accused for a traffic stop that was unlawful. An officer cannot stop an individual without sufficient probable cause, a legal standard provided by the Fourth Amendment. Thus, if an officer reports that he stopped an accused for violating the Vehicle Code, but there was no Vehicle Code violation, the accused may be able to prevail at a P.C. 1538 hearing.

A criminal defense attorney has the responsibility to perform an adequate investigation. Evidence obtained by an attorney could lead to a decision to file a Motion to Suppress. An investigation can include, but is not limited to: requesting discovery from the prosecution, subpoenaing documents, and looking at possible video surveillance. It is now common for officers to have dashboard cameras, and also cameras on their persons. A video could show that a traffic stop was unlawful.

Some of my clients have asked what a motion consists of. A motion is a request for the court to do something. The party "moves" the court to make an order. A motion is started (usually) by an opening brief. The attorney files a memorandum with points and authorities (cases in support of the motion). Then, the prosecution (again, usually) files an opposition brief, highlighting their position against the motion. This allows the court to familiarize itself with the law and facts of the particular case. After the briefing with physical documents, there is an evidentiary hearing where witnesses testify. The arresting officer most likely will testify as to the facts of the stop or arrest.

A Motion to Suppress is a constitutional protection. It safeguards citizens from police abuses. There are other type of situations, as well, when a P.C. section 1538 may be appropriate. Law enforcement cannot exercise a warrant based on false information. Police cannot execute a warrant outside the constraints of the warrant. Facts should be scrutinized in every criminal case.

In conclusion, a defendant may not need to persuade a jury. There are pre-trial motions that can be potentially made, which could lead to a complete dismissal. It is important to contact an attorney should you be charged with a crime. We welcome your calls and questions.