Saturday, December 19, 2015

Plaintiff's Motions in Limine Prior to an Injury Accident Trial

The purpose of a lawsuit is to afford parties an opportunity to resolve disputes before a tribunal. Litigation has its benefits. For one, the force of law controls. A party cannot ignore procedural rules without facing sanctions. Two, the result will be binding. A judgement from a court of law will be enforced. Finally, three, parties can have their day in court.

Lawsuits rarely result in a trial by jury, however. Most cases are resolved short of trial -- by way of mediation, or by settlement negotiated by the attorneys. Nevertheless, a trial attorney should treat every case as if it is going to trial. This mindset will help maximize the case value.

Part of preparing for trial lies in procedural strategies. One such strategy is controlling the evidence admitted during the trial. Motions, or requests to the judge, can be made before the jury is impaneled. Motions in limine are made to exclude certain evidence from being heard by the jury. There are a few motions in limine that should be considered in every case.

"Character evidence," or evidence of a person's past conduct unrelated to the case, is not allowed. Thus, if a plaintiff has been involved in prior lawsuits, or had been found at fault in another case, a motion should be made to protect the plaintiff. A jury may consider "character evidence" as evidence to prove conduct in the relevant case. The law prohibits that line of thinking. The present evidence should be considered alone without the information of what may or may not have happened in a separate case.

Another popular motion limits the ability of the defendant to introduce evidence not already disclosed to the plaintiff. During pre-trial litigation, discovery is completed by both sides. When a party responds to discovery, they should be held to their responses. New or contradictory evidence can be excluded with a motion in limine. For example, a defendant will assert his defense contentions during discovery. Let's say Danny the Defendant stated in his response to an interrogatory that he was not negligent because the plaintiff ran a red light. During trial though, Danny the Defendant tries to testify that he was not negligent because the signal was defective. His testimony can be excluded because it is inconsistent with his discovery response.

Motions in limine regarding experts are common as well. Medical experts are utilized in almost every motor vehicle accident case. In order for the plaintiff to prove damages, it is helpful to have a doctor discuss the plaintiff's medical treatment, and future medical treatment that may be necessary. It gives the jury information about the extent of money that has been spent or will have to be spent.

A plaintiff attorney should anticipate the content of the defendant's medical expert's opinions. An expert must disclose all of his opinions during a deposition when asked. If an expert tries to give a new or different opinion during trial, it could be devastating to the plaintiff's case. Thus, a motion in limine should be filed so that the defendant's expert's opinions are limited to the opinions given during deposition.

Trial results are unpredictable. Juries have been known to surprise attorneys. It is important, then, for attorneys to do everything in their power to control the process. Motions in limine are one way of giving the plaintiff an opportunity to win.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What is Discovery in a Criminal Case?

A defendant in a criminal case will naturally be afraid of what could happen to him or her. Misdemeanor and felony charges carry the potential for jail and prison time. In addition, defendants face the possibility of future scrutiny in their employment prospects and personal reputation.

The first two questions usually asked by a defendant are: "What did I do? What evidence does the prosecution have?" The process by which a defense attorney obtains the evidence is called "discovery." Discovery is the opportunity for the defendant to find out what kind of case the prosecution will present against the defendant.

During the pre-trial stage of a case, discovery is undertaken by both the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney. Both sides are required to discuss their case. There are not supposed to be surprises at trial. Legal dramas on television and movies are not representative of a majority of real cases.

Discovery is done informally, at first. Sometimes the Judge presiding over the case will have to be involved to handle disputes. Common disputes arise when a defense attorney has reason to believe that the prosecution has not handed over particular evidence. The prosecution must turn over certain evidence, such as:
  • witness names and the content of their testimony
  • "real evidence," or physical evidence
  • evidence that is favorable to the defendant, i.e. "exculpatory"
  • felony history of any witnesses for purposes of impeachment
  • any "relevant" recorded or written statements
Sometimes attorneys disagree as to what is relevant. A judge will rule once a motion is made by one of the parties. Defense attorneys should be aggressive in pursuing disclosure.

Certain legal principles are supposed to protect a defendant as well. For example, "Brady" violations occur when a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence. Recently, the United States Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, criticized California state judges for allowing prosecutorial misconduct. He said that there is an "epidemic of Brady violations..."

Regardless of misconduct or not, it is important for defendants to be aware of their rights. Discovery is important to a case. Sometimes it will lead to a defense verdict. Other times it can help facilitate a favorable plea deal. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an attorney. Evidence and its impact on your case can be discussed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

What is a Settlement in a Personal Injury Case?

Personal injury lawyers like to spit out legal terms. "We sent the defense a 998 offer to compromise." "I warned the Plaintiff's attorneys that I will have to file a MSJ." "Before the CMC, I need to run down to central to file an Oppo." I know. It can get confusing.

Some terms like "settlement" are widely recognized, but the mechanics of a settlement in a personal injury context is not well known. This blog post will go over a "settlement" in greater detail.

A settlement can occur prior to, during, or after a lawsuit is filed. Most motor vehicle accidents, for example, involve automobile insurance. When a person is injured as the result of another motorist, he or she will make a claim with the automobile insurance of the other motorist.

Once the insurance is involved, a claim could be "settled" before a lawsuit is filed. A civil lawsuit can be filed when there exists a "cause of action" against another individual, or entity. "Negligence" is the cause of action most utilized in automobile accidents. The other driver may have ran a red light, and thus been negligent. The negligence resulted in injuries to the plaintiff, who filed the lawsuit against the driver who ran the red light -- and the bad driver then becomes the defendant in the lawsuit.

But again, it might not be necessary to file a lawsuit. The negligent driver's insurance will contact the injured person to try to "settle" the claim. A number of factors go into the decision of when it is appropriate to settle a claim. Experienced attorneys can advise on when a settlement would be prudent.

As an illustration, let's say that it makes sense for the claimant to settle a claim. The other driver has no assets; he also has a low policy limit, $15,000 in bodily injury liability. So far, the claimant has over $8,000 in medical damages, and continues to experience excruciating pain. The insurance company, recognizing that the claim likely exceeds $15,000, offers to "settle" the claim for the policy limit of $15,000. Claimant accepts. What happens?

Well, the claimant must execute a release of all claims against the negligent driver, in exchange for a sum of money, which was in this hypothetical $15,000. A release prevents the claimant from filing a lawsuit against the negligent driver. No lawsuit was filed, but a "settlement" was reached.

After a lawsuit has been filed, "settlements" get a little more complicated. Automobile insurance will always provides liability coverage for a negligent driver. Insurance also pays for the cost of litigation, meaning that: if the negligent driver is sued, the insurer will pay an attorney to defend the negligent driver in the lawsuit.

Therefore, a settlement will involve a new party once a lawsuit has been filed: the defense attorney. The defense attorney represents the negligent driver, but answers to the insurance company. Once a defense attorney reaches an agreement with the plaintiff's attorney (and is authorized by the client), a few things must be done before settlement.    

The defense attorney, or plaintiff's attorney, must file a "Notice of Settlement" with the court. This ensures that future court dates are vacated. Then, a release is executed, which, as explained above, will be a payment in exchange for the plaintiff to forfeit his cause of action against the negligent driver. Once payment has been satisfied, the plaintiff will file a "Request for Dismissal with Prejudice." Once a dismissal has been filed, the case is closed forever.

Settlements will always involve consideration, something in exchange for something else. Predominantly it is a sum of money in exchange for the injured party to forego pursuing money from the negligent party. It can occur at different stages of a claim, and will require different steps, but it will always result in the conclusion of a case.

Before you, a friend, or loved one settles a claim, it is important to contact an attorney to seek advice. One should not be quick to rush to a decision. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Factual Innocence Motion & Sealing an Arrest Record

Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies beat and framed Gabriel Carrillo while he was in custody in 2011. During a routine visit with an inmate, an oral argument took place between visitor Carrillo and the sheriff deputies. Things escalated when the deputies took Carrillo into custody and assaulted him. The deputies claimed that Carrillo had tried to fight them. When photographs showed injuries to Carrillo's hands -- indicating that he was beaten while handcuffed, battery charges against Carrillo were dropped.

Now, 4 years later, Mr. Carrillo was able to get a "factual innocence" motion granted. This goes far beyond an "expungement." Mr. Carrillo will now have his arrest record sealed and destroyed. A Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled that there was no reasonable cause to believe that he committed the offense for which he was arrested.

Individuals who have been convicted of a crime in Los Angeles County will routinely call attorneys about cleaning up their records. It makes sense. In a competitive job market, it is good to have a limited criminal background. Most, if not all, are unaware of the differences between expungements and what Mr. Carrillo had received.

To explain clearly, it is important to start from the beginning. If there is probable cause for an arrest, and a person is arrested, he or she will have an arrest record, meaning that a criminal background check will show that an arrest took place.

A criminal charge is usually then initiated. It is separate from an arrest. Once a criminal charge has been filed, a person's background will note the charge and the result of that charge. It could be a dismissal -- should someone be successful in a motion to suppress, for example, or it could be a conviction. No matter what, however, there will be information available during a background check.

An expungement, as explained in other blog posts, dismisses the conviction. It also gives the formerly convicted person certain rights. It prevents discrimination. An expungement does not get rid of an arrest or charge on a person's criminal history. It simply withdraws the guilty plea and dismisses the case.

A "factual innocence motion" does get rid of a person's criminal history. Pursuant to California Penal Code section 851.8, should a person win a Petition to Seal and Destroy an arrest record, the California Department of Justice will seal the arrest. It will not show up on a criminal background check. After three years, it gets destroyed.

The burden is extremely high for a Petition to Seal and Destroy. Factual innocence must be proven, which is a tough standard. A person must show that there was no "reasonable cause" to believe that a crime was committed. Again, it is difficult.

Nevertheless, it is a good option for individuals like Mr. Carrillo. If you, the reader, family member, or friend are unsure on how to proceed in cleaning up a criminal background, it is best to contact a criminal defense attorney. He or she will likely be able to answer questions that are specific to each person.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Injuries at a Hollywood Nightclub Could Lead to a Lawsuit

The Los Angeles Times and other local media have reported a homicide at Cashmere nightclub in Hollywood. The victim was DJ Steeze, who may have been involved in a brawl that occurred in the dance club. Police and city officials are concerned with the 21% increase of violent crimes, which can be attributed to drunk patrons pouring out into the streets.

Violence occurring in drinking establishments is nothing new. One can watch a classic Western to conclude that. However, the uptick of people visiting Hollywood clubs increases the risk of harm to visitors. Since 2000, Hollywood residency increased threefold. There is a greater chance of conflict.

A person injured, or even killed, at a nightclub could have legal recourse. Indeed, there are many different legal theories that could be advanced should there be facts that support it. 

Most injury cases against nightclubs are brought under the umbrella of negligence. That is, the plaintiff is able to prove that a duty was owed to them, there was a breach of that duty by the nightclub, and as a result of that breach, injury occurred to the plaintiff.

Negligence could be framed in different arguments. For example, some cases involve security personnel, or bouncers. When escorting patrons out, the bouncers get too aggressive or assault the patrons without cause. Those bouncers may lack the required licensing or training to be employed. The club potentially could be held liable for employing individuals who are not qualified to hold a position that could result in injury to guests.

There are other examples. Municipal ordinances require that businesses comply with safety regulations. Sometimes a club may not have the required lighting. Other times a club may exceed the maximum occupancy of a building, which makes things too crowded and dangerous for invitees. An exhaustive investigation should be done after an incident because oftentimes protocol was not properly followed. 

If someone is injured at a nightclub, it is important that he or she seek the medical attention that he or she needs. Proper treatment should be a priority. Then, the injured person should contact an attorney for a consultation. It is possible that medical bills could be recovered, in addition to pain and suffering, lost earnings, and future lost earnings and/or medical treatment.

Given the news, a person should always be careful when going to a nightclub. One should always remain vigilant and aware of his or her surroundings. With that, be safe and thank you for reading.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Recent Data Shows California's Realignment Doesn't Harm Public Safety

A few years ago, California passed a number of bills related to criminal justice reform. Due to prison overcrowding, and constitutional concerns, Governor Brown led the charge to reduce the bloated prison population. Propositions 36 and 47, which dealt with the punitive three-strikes law and over-sentencing of non-violent theft/drug crimes respectively, were passed with overwhelming majorities.

An older law, passed in 2011, also helped reverse the rapid increase of state inmates. "Realignment" put non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders in county jail rather than state prisons. Instead of being put into the care of parole, these non-violent inmates were placed into the custody of county-based probation programs. This helped the overloaded parole board. Also, violations resulted in county jail terms, rather than prison terms.

The opposition to Realignment had rational arguments, but so far their fears and concerns have been proven wrong. Despite their claims that crime would surge, citizens of California knew that the status quo was hurting their state and took the purported risk. It was worth it.

Now, the San Diego Tribune is reporting that Realignment does not harm safety. Since Realignment, crime has remained relatively low. Both in 2013 and 2014, crime rates dropped. Property and violent crimes are now at historic lows. Some experts believe that it is too early to make judgments, but overall, the data shows a trend downwards in violent crimes.

Reduction in crime rates is not exclusive to Los Angeles or California. Throughout the United States, crime has been down. The FBI data shows crime rates at 1960 levels. All of this is good news for those who advocate for criminal justice reform. Reducing prison populations will save money, combat recidivism, and put convicts in a position where they can re-assimilate.

Communities have been damaged enough from aggressive policies of over-incarceration. Let's hope that the data continues to reflect the benefits of changing how we, as a state, handle crime.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Motorcycle Accidents Have Become More Frequent and More Dangerous

An article from the Inland Empire pointed out that motorcycle accidents are occurring more often. It is obviously very dangerous for those who ride motorcycles, but it is also dangerous for everyone on the road. Incidents have occurred where drivers of regular cars suddenly swerve lanes to try to avoid a disabled motorcycle.

Motorcycles are smaller, lighter in weight, and afford less protection, i.e. airbags, seat-belts, protective engineering. People involved in motorcycle accidents die at a much larger rate than people involved in a motor vehicle accident. Cars are larger and safer. It goes without saying that motorcycle helmets are a must. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) provided interesting statistics:

(1) Helmets, when worn, reduce the risk of death by 29 percent;

(2) Helmets, when worn, are 67 percent effective in preventing traumatic brain injury; and

(3) From 1984 to 1995, helmets saved the lives of more than 7,400 motorcyclists.

Besides wearing helmets, motorcyclists can remain cautious and attentive. Indeed, a lot of accidents involving motorcycles are caused by sleeping motorcyclists! The same laws for motor vehicles are applicable to motorcycles. Use common sense and be careful.

But what should you do if you, a motorcycle rider, are involved in an accident because of the fault of a motor vehicle? You should contact a personal injury attorney and open a claim immediately. It is important that everything is documented properly. Take pictures, make sure that the police are called to write a report, and be mindful of your pain.

Moreover, some bikes are custom, meaning that it is important for the owner to collect evidence of the value of the motorcycle if it is damaged. The property damage claim that will be made usually is disposed of prior to the bodily injury claim. Also, do not hesitate to contact your attorney with questions; it is important to communicate on a regular basis.

Like all accidents, motorcycle accidents are potentially harmful, inconvenient, and time-consuming. Motorcyclists should be ready to seek the advice of the attorney if necessary. But remember: wear a helmet, it can save your life.

Friday, September 4, 2015

DUI Checkpoints Are Legal

The other day an individual challenged his DUI in court without the representation of an attorney. In open court, in front of the other defendants and attorneys, he started to yell at the presiding judge. "They violated my constitutional rights!" The judge was annoyed but let the man finish. "A DUI checkpoint is unconstitutional! There was no probable cause to stop me!" After he was done, the judge responded: "This is an arraignment. All you need to do is enter a plea of guilty, no contest, or not guilty."

Besides the procedural mistake (one does not argue the merits of a case at an arraignment), the pro per defendant was wrong on the law. DUI checkpoints are not unconstitutional. To the contrary, both the United States and California Constitutions' allow DUI checkpoints.

The rationale behind "mobile" or "roadblock" DUI checkpoints lies in public safety. Due to the state's strong interest in preventing injury from DUI accidents, minor inconveniences are allowed. This does not mean that law enforcement can use checkpoints as an excuse to perform general or broad investigations. Police officers must follow strict guidelines when conducting a DUI checkpoint.

California has enacted legislation with respect to checkpoints. California Vehicle Code section 2814.2, subsection (a) states: "[a] driver of a motor vehicle shall stop and submit to a sobriety checkpoint inspection conducted by a law enforcement agency when signs and displays are posted requiring that stop."

Nevertheless, a California Supreme Court case in 1987 (Ingersoll v. Palmer), enumerated the guidelines that must be followed by officers executing a DUI checkpoint. They are as follows:

     a) Supervising officers must make all operational decisions;
     b) Criteria for stops must be neutral;
     c) Checkpoint must be reasonably located;
     d) Adequate safety measures must be taken;
     e) Good judgment must be used when determining the checkpoint's time and duration;
     f) There must be sufficient notice to drivers that the checkpoint is for official purposes;
     g) Drivers must only be stopped for a minimal amount of time; and
     h) Checkpoints should be publicly advertised in advance of execution.

If these guidelines are not followed, it is possible that a DUI charge, arising from a checkpoint, could be challenged. There are never guarantees, however.

A checkpoint also does not mean officers' can perform an extensive investigation without probable cause. A brief stop can lead to an investigation when there is evidence, sufficient probable cause, of intoxication --for example, when a person has alcohol on his breath, blurred eyes, or slurred speech.

In summary, on holiday weekends, like Labor Day Weekend, make sure that you avoid situations where you will have to drink and drive. Use a designated driver or taxi service if you drink. It is not only against the law, it is extremely dangerous. With that, have a good weekend!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Subrogation in Third Party Accident Cases

"Good news: your case has settled." The client asks in response, "When do you think I will get my portion of the settlement?" There is a pause over the phone. The personal injury attorney -- experienced and familiar with post-settlement -- was expecting the question. "We cannot disburse any funds until the liens are satisfied." "When will that be?" The lawyer's answer did not satisfy the client: "it depends..."

The general public is unfamiliar with the term, "subrogation." However, it is an important concept to attorneys and insurers. Subrogation allows insurers to recover costs that they may have expended on  behalf of their insureds. Simply put, when there is a third party accident, the first party's insurance carrier is able to recover monies from the third party who is at fault. The insurer steps into the shoes of the insured and gets the right to be paid what it has lost.

An example may help. Let's say Frank, the first party who was injured, retained Adam the attorney. Frank was hurt in an accident, so he needed medical treatment. Frank went to his primary care provider for help. All of the medical bills from his primary care provider were sent to Frank's health insurance carrier, "HealthIns."  HealthIns was made aware by Adam, Frank's attorney, that the treatment was related to a motor vehicle accident.

Meanwhile, Adam was able to prove that Tom, the third party, was at fault for the accident. Tom's insurance policy had a liability limit of $15,000. Due to the extent of injuries to Frank, Tom's liability insurer offered to settle Frank's claim for the full amount of $15,000. Adam relays the offer to Frank, and Frank accepts.

There is now $15,000 in settlement funds. Before the funds are disbursed, however, HealthIns reminds Adam that it will enforce its right to subrogation. HealthIns paid $5,000 to Frank's medical provider. Adam and HealthIns must now settle the subrogation lien prior to the disbursement of funds to Frank.

Sometimes it can take months for a case to be closed after it has been settled. It is frustrating but it is the law. In some circumstances, the insurer will not be able entitled to subrogation.

A health insurer may not be entitled to subrogation if the insured was "not made whole." The "made whole doctrine" is an equitable principle that states, absent an agreement to the contrary, an insurance company may not subrogate until the insured has been fully compensated for his or her injuries, or "made whole." See Sapiano v. Williamsburg Natl. Ins. Co. (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 533. This principle will sometimes apply when there is a catastrophic injury and a low liability policy.

Needless to say it is obvious that personal injury law is complex. It is best to retain, or consult, with an experienced personal injury attorney after an accident. Not only should the attorney be able to recover a settlement or judgment, he or she will be able to advise on the intricacies of subrogation, liens, and rights to reimbursement.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bench Warrants

A number of times prospective clients have called and asked questions about bench warrants. "Can an attorney go to court for me, without me being there?" "Will or can I be arrested?" "What did I do, which makes a warrant necessary?" These example questions, all legitimate, will be answered in this blog post.

"Warrants" have been around longer than the United States. The general definition of a warrant is a document issued by a legal or government official authorizing the police or some other body to make an arrest, search premises, or carry out some other action relating to the administration of justice. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution requires that probable cause be present prior to the issuance of an unreasonable search and seizure warrant.

Warrants may not involve a search or seizure, however. Judicial officers can issue bench warrants for different reasons. Some of the most common reasons why a bench warrant is issued: (1) a defendant misses a mandatory court appearance; (2) a defendant faces a possible revocation of probation; and (3) a defendant fails to pay court ordered fines. 

Bench warrants do not require suspicion of a crime having been committed. Typically, bench warrants involve open cases. Judicial officers issue a bench warrant and it authorizes law enforcement to arrest and detain an individual so that the open matter can be disposed of. 

To clear a bench warrant, the defendant must appear before the court. In the rarest of cases, judicial officers allow an appearance without the defendant being present. Most of the time, defendants will need to be present. It depends on the particular case, and facts of that case. Some courts have different protocol, i.e. time limitations to appear (before 8:30 am at some courts). It may be necessary to consult with an attorney to answer questions specific to a particular set of facts.

Felonies, misdemeanors, and even traffic matters can result in the issuance of a bench warrant. In some cases, a driver's license hold is placed on the defendant too. Ignoring a bench warrant is extremely unwise and potentially dangerous to an effective defense. Far too many times, judges have scolded defendants for attempting to skirt the law. 

If you, a loved one, or friend has a bench warrant, it is best to get a taken care of right away. Seek the consultation of a criminal defense attorney; most offer free consultations.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Cell Phones May Impact a Personal Injury Case

Last week, our blog discussed unlawful searches of cell phones by law enforcement. This week we will be discussing cell phones but in the context of a personal injury case. How will evidence of cell phone use affect an injury accident matter?

Cell phones are widely used. Nowadays, it is difficult to find someone who does not own a cell phone that can text or search the internet. One report concluded that there are now more cell phones in the United States than people. Moreover, the National Safety Council has reported that 26% of all collisions involve a party using a cell phone while driving. Given these facts, personal injury attorneys should be prepared to investigate whether the at-fault party was using an electronic device, which helped cause the collision.

Cell phone cases are similar to DUI cases. Let me give some examples. One, it is unlawful in California to drive and use a cell phone (or manipulate a device with one's hands while driving), like it is unlawful to drive while under the influence of alcohol. Two, California has taken steps to notify the public of the dangers of driving while using a cell phone, just like with DUIs. Commercials are on all of the time -- some of them involve the victim speaking about how a cell phone has harmed them significantly. Three, a separate criminal case (DUI), or infraction case (cell phones), could help prove liability with respect to the negligent driver. In a lot of DUI cases, the district attorney makes the defendant admit liability for purposes of restitution.

Besides liability, cell phone use could potentially lead to punitive damages. Courts have held punitive damages are appropriate in some cell phone cases.

The argument to request punitive damages in a cell phone case relies upon the wisdom of the seminal case that involved a DUI driver: Tayor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890. In that case, the California Supreme Court found that certain conduct could give rise to a request for punitive damages. The opinion did not limit "malicious conduct" to DUIs. It stated, in part, that: "the circumstances in a [non-DUI case could involve] similar willful or wanton behavior..."

Injured parties should not only investigate cell phone use for purposes of liability, they should also consider whether it could impact the damage element of their case. Not all cases of cell phone use will merit punitive damages, however. "Malice" is difficult to prove. Nevertheless, plaintiffs should be generally aware of how cell phone use could potentially impact their own case.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Law Enforcement Cannot Search Cell Phones Without Warrants

It is common knowledge that the law moves slow, much slower than technology. When it comes to technological advances, the law can barely keep up. One should be able to see why. Drafters of legislation, usually not keen on computer science and engineering, have a difficult time anticipating how new devices could impact the law.

For example, cell phones in the 1980's were bricks. Users could expect dropped calls and much attention. The ability to make calls without a landline was groundbreaking. But, cell phones did not serve any other function besides making calls. Many could not predict that cell phones would become min-computers. Smartphones are radically different from first generation cell phones; lawyers, judges, and legislators may have been the last to realize it.

Smartphones have impacted the law, and the Fourth Amendment. Messages, applications, and search history can assist law enforcement. Drug deals can be carried out by text message. Illegal transfer of stolen money can be done by mobile banking. Indeed, a murderer could develop ways to kill someone by searching on his or her cell phone. The vast majority of cell phone use is not criminal in nature. As such, it is important that privacy is protected. 

In June of 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that searching a cell phone incident to arrest requires a search warrant. Riley v. California was a strong rebuke of the government's position that law enforcement should be able to access digital data before it could be potentially destroyed.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, in part, that: "[t]he fact that technology now allows an individual to carry [the privacies of life] in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant."

In practice, law enforcement has been slow to apply Riley. One would be surprised how often police officers still search cell phones after a DUI, domestic violence, or misdemeanor arrest without a warrant. In these cases, there can be redress if inculpatory evidence is obtained.

Should law enforcement search a cell phone after an arrest without a warrant, a defense attorney may be able to prevail in suppressing the evidence. A 1538 motion to suppress should definitely be considered as an option by a defense attorney if there are possible Riley violations.

Smartphones are more than just phones, they are at the center of many people's lives. Although the Fourth Amendment didn't touch upon the legality of searching cell phones (the founding fathers were smart but not fortune tellers), we now know that it is the law of the land that cell phones cannot be searched without a warrant.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Uber Accidents After the Recent California Labor Commission Ruling

My wife and I use Uber all of the time. It's great. One does not have to worry about parking or drinking and driving. The service is convenient and easy to use. Ride-sharing technology has been great for consumers.

However, what happens when passengers are injured while riding in an Uber car? With a recent ruling from the California Labor Commission, plaintiffs may benefit. The California Labor Commission found that Uber drivers are employees, not independent contractors. An employee classification for its drivers will mean a number of different things for Uber, including how it deals with injury accident claims.

Under California law, a legal doctrine called "Respondeat Superior" (I know, lawyers love Latin) holds employers responsible for the negligent acts of their employees. Given certain elements must be met, i.e. the Uber driver must have been working at the time of the accident, nevertheless, this ruling will allow injured parties to proceed against Uber directly.

Further, Uber will have to carry $1 million in liability insurance for its drivers. The insurance policy will be excess to the driver, meaning that the driver's own automobile insurance will be primary in the event of a claim. An injured party will first have to recover the policy limit from the Uber driver before he or she can recover from the Uber $1 million policy (not all injuries are serious enough to warrant a claim against an excess insurance policy).

Catastrophic accidents routinely pose difficulties for plaintiffs because there are insufficient policy limits. For example, an injured party may lose the use of his or her legs, but only be able to pursue the defendant's liability insurance, which has a limit of $15,000. In the described hypothetical, the injured party will have to bear great costs, including all disability bills. Should a plaintiff be involved in a catastrophic accident with Uber, this ruling will ensure larger limits, and potentially provide greater protections for the plaintiff.

Finally, the issue of agency, or independent contractor v. employee, is still is being litigated. Uber has pending lawsuits with both state and federal courts in California. While the Labor Commission is a set back for Uber, and a win for consumers, nothing is certain, or settled, at this point.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Defending Against a Criminal Threats PC 422 Charge

Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that it is not perfect. Any institution cannot be perfect when the institution is comprised of imperfect human beings. Nonetheless, there are commonplace problems that should be addressed. Until then, a defendant should be aware of how to successfully navigate a criminal threats charge when the facts are scant to support a conviction.

California Penal Code section 422 defines "criminal threats" as willfully threatening to kill or severely harm a victim. It is a "wobbler" crime, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. However, prosecutors will routinely charge it as a felony to gain an advantage in the plea bargaining stage of the case.

Like with any other crime, the prosecution has to prove each element of the alleged violation beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements of Pen. Code section 422 show that it may be difficult to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt when there exist facts favorable for the defendant. Let me explain, by first stating each element of the crime.

  • Defendant willfully threatened to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury (GBI) to another person or person's immediate family (from here on out we will exclude the section regarding a person's family)
  • Defendant made the threat orally, in writing, or by electronic communication device
  • Defendant intended that his or her statement be understood by the person as a threat
  • The threat was so clear, immediate, unconditional, and specific, that it communicated to the person being threatened a serious intention and the immediate prospect that the threat would be carried out 
  • The threat actually caused the person to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety and
  • The threatened person's fear was reasonable under the circumstances.
After an examination of the elements, one should be able to see how a criminal threats charge could be effectively defended against. Not all perceived "threats" fall under the purview of PC section 422.

For example, a threat made in jest between two friends would not be a chargeable offense. A conditional threat, as well, could not lead to a conviction: "I will hurt you if you continue to date that person..."

Similarly, a threat must cause a sustained fear in the person threatened. Say a defendant is mentally ill. While experiencing a psychotic episode, the defendant makes a criminal threat against a law enforcement official. Prior to the threat, the law enforcement officer knew or should have known that the defendant was a mentally ill person. Further, the defendant, outnumbered by six other officers, had no way of carrying out the threat. The hypothetical above would likely end with an acquittal.

A criminal charge is not a criminal conviction. A prosecutor may charge a defendant with a criminal threats charge, but there may be facts that support a dismissal or acquittal.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Are You An Eggshell Plaintiff?

Not everyone is alike. Indeed, that is what makes society so interesting. Los Angeles is comprised of artists, athletes, professionals, skilled workers, and educators. Personalities vary. Some are outgoing and eccentric, others are introverted. People from all different types of backgrounds, and ethnicity,  make up the community that we live in.

Similarly, not all injured parties are the same. Regardless, under the law, a defendant is liable for all injuries caused, even if the plaintiff is more susceptible to injury than the average person. You "take the victim as you find him or her." So, if a plaintiff is hypersensitive or predisposed to injury, the defendant may be out of luck.

This doctrine is referred to as the "Eggshell Plaintiff" Rule. The foundations of the principle lie in common law. The Eggshell name originates in the following hypothetical (which has been changed slightly):

Danny Defendant is speeding and drinking a glass of wine while he drives down Ventura Boulevard. Pennny Plaintiff is stopped at a red light 20 feet in front of Danny Defendant. As Danny Defendant approaches, he doesn't have enough time to apply the brakes. Penny Plaintiff screams as she sees Danny Defendant's car quickly advancing. Sure enough, Danny Defendant's car rear ends Penny Plaintiff's vehicle. Unfortunately for both Danny Defendant and Penny Plaintiff, Penny Plaintiff has an eggshell skull. The slightest pressure on her skull can cause it to fracture. When Penny Plaintiff's vehicle was violently struck from behind, her head hit the steering wheel, which resulted in a severe skull fracture. All of the doctors consulted after the accident said that no other person would have suffered a skull fracture; it is only because Penny Plaintiff had an eggshell skull. Nevertheless, Danny Defendant will have to pay for all damages related to the fracture, which is the full extent of Penny Plaintiff's injuries.

California has a jury instruction available should a Eggshell Plaintiff case go to trial. California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 3927 provides:

"Plaintiff is not entitled to damages for any physical or emotional condition that he or she had before Defendant's conduct occurred. However, if Plaintiff had a physical or emotional condition that was made worse by Defendant's conduct, you must award damages that will reasonably and fairly compensate him or her for the effect on that condition."

A lot of cases that have been filed in a court of law will involve discovery. During discovery, it is common for defense attorneys to ask about "preexisting conditions" or prior accidents. A defendant will not be liable for injuries that existed before the accident. But, the defendant will be liable if the prior injuries of plaintiff are aggravated by the negligent conduct of defendant. Thus, it is important to determine whether a plaintiff has suffered an aggravation or if the injury was not related to the negligence of the particular incident.

In a nutshell, all eggshell readers need not worry. Should you be involved in an accident, the defendant or at-fault party will be responsible for all injuries incurred, even it is quite unusual.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Traffic Changes in LA County Present New Obstacles for Defendants

Traffic citations are issued to almost every driver in Los Angeles. Broken tail light, speeding, driving without a license are all common mistakes.  No one is spared from the traffic courts, including attorneys, judges, and sometimes law enforcement personnel. Thus, everyone should be angry about recent changes being implemented throughout Los Angeles County.

Penalty assessments use to be the only outrageous part of getting a ticket. For those unfamiliar with penalty assessments, let me explain. The California Legislature has voted multiple times to add additional assessments to every single citation in California, on top of the base fine. These assessments are now a reliable way to increase revenue for the state. What use to be a $100 fine, adds up to around $500 after state assessments. Recently, the LA Times and other media outlets have criticized the burdensome law, which affects low-income families the most.

Now the courts have taken egregious steps to make traffic citations even more onerous. To my knowledge, these changes have not yet been made available to the public. Let me go through some of the major changes:


A failure to appear is a separate charge that can be added to a ticket, if a defendant misses his or her court date. When a defendant misses a court date, the court will issue a warrant, and place a hold on the defendant's driver's license. A hold will then lead to a suspension of the driver's license.

Upon notice of the suspension, defendants use to be able to go to the court clerk and purchase an abstract. An abstract removed the hold, and the defendant could then get his or her license reissued. No more.

Now, holds will not be removed until disposition of the case. Attorneys can and should request a speedy trial in light of these changes.


Some defendants cannot take advantage of traffic school (completion of traffic school, available once every 18 months, keeps a negligent operator point off of the defendant's driving record with the DMV).

A strategy that used to be utilized by attorneys, when traffic school was not available, was negotiation with the citing officers. When evidence was disputable, or when officers' were in a good mood, the court would accept an amended violation and plea agreement. This means that the officer would change the vehicle code violation to a non-moving violation (carries no point), and the defendant would change his plea to guilty. The moving violation would then be dismissed. This is no longer an option.

Given that negotiations are off the table, attorneys will have no other choice but to put on a trial. This means that discovery requests may be made more often.


Defendants miss their trial dates too. Before the new changes effective April 1, 2015, the court would have simply issued a warrant and placed a hold on the defendant's driver license. Unfortunately, this is not the case now.

Bench officers may now hold a trial in absentia. In absentia is a Latin phrase meaning "in the absence" of the defendant. If there is sufficient evidence of guilt, the court can find the defendant guilty without the defendant having been given an opportunity to present a defense. Pretty crazy, right?

These new policies are frowned upon by the defense bar. One can expect appeals to the higher courts. Until then, a person cited for a traffic matter should be careful. It is a new world.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Negligence Per Se" In a Motor Vehicle Accident

The grumpy attorney yelled objection loud enough for people at the back of the courtroom. "A presumption against my client is unwarranted...negligence per se was never discussed before trial!" The judge weighed the objection with a slight tilt of the neck. "Objection overruled. The accident report notates a vehicle code violation. The defendant will be presumed to have been negligent. Of course counselor, you may rebut that presumption."

Clients will often reference legal shows or movies. Most scenes do not depict the reality of a legal case. Prior to a trial, both sides get an understanding of what is going to be admitted into evidence. There are rarely the surprise, or "gotcha," moments.

However, shows and movies reflect true legal doctrines. The hypothetical interaction at the beginning of the blog post between attorney and judge highlights the doctrine: negligence per se. It is a presumption that can help plaintiffs in personal injury accident matters.

What is a presumption? Before one can answer that question, it is important to discuss burdens of proof. In a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his or her case. If the burden is not met, the plaintiff will lose and the defendant will win. In a civil case, the burden is proof by a preponderance of the evidence (opposed to the more difficult proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case).

Now, let's discuss presumptions. A presumption is a burden shift. It allows parties to shift the burden of proof, so it gives them a strategical advantage. One such presumption under California law is "negligence per se."

Evidence Code section 669 codifies this common law presumption. It states, in part:

"The failure of a person to exercise due care is presumed if: (1) He violated a statute, ordinance, or regulation of a public entity; (2) The violation proximately caused death or injury to person or property; (3) The death or injury resulted from an occurrence of the nature which the statute, ordinance, or regulation was designed to prevent; and (4) The person suffering the death or the injury to his person or property was one of the class of persons for whose protection the statute, ordinance, or regulation was adopted."

When a defendant has violated a statute, say a Vehicle Code section, a presumption can be raised so that the burden is now on the defendant to rebut the presumption, i.e. that the violation was excused. The jury must presume that the defendant is negligent and liable for damages (if causation and damages exist).

Applying the doctrine in a personal injury case is not too difficult. Imagine that a plaintiff is rear ended while driving on the highway. A police report is drafted and the defendant driver who rear ended the plaintiff was cited for speeding, using a cell phone, and making an unsafe lane change. Defendant driver is convicted of all charges. Because the law prohibits speeding, cell phone use, and unsafe lane changes, it is likely that the plaintiff will be able to request a negligence per se presumption at trial. The purpose of those laws are to prevent reckless driving, and promote the safety of other drivers. The elements necessary for an instruction are present.

A case cannot be won simply with a presumption. But, a negligence per se presumption can definitely help. The jury returns after deliberation. The judge waits for them to all sit. He then asks, "Have you reached a decision?" One of the jurors stands up. "We have your honor."

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Effects of AB 16: Changes to Domestic Violence Charge PC 273.5

Last year, the California legislature amended Penal Code section 273.5, corporal injury on a spouse. The new changes expanded the definition of whom can be classified as a victim. Now included under the statute: former fiances and fiancees, current and former dating partners, mother or father of the defendant's child.

The changes have widened the scope of who can be accused of committing an act of domestic violence. The authors of the bill projected that it could increase convictions under the law by 10%. It is too early to tell, however, if there have been more criminal filings as a result of the change. Nevertheless, a domestic violence charge remains a serious crime.

Treating domestic violence differently than other violent crimes has been entrenched in California law since 1945. There is data, and tragic anecdotal stories, showing that victims of domestic violence can experience mental trauma for years, if not indefinitely unto death. Thus, there is a strong public interest in treating domestic violence crimes differently.

All people accused of committing a PC 273.5 act of domestic violence are not guilty. There have been cases of false accusations or self-defense.

To be convicted under the law, the People have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
(1) willfully inflicted a physical injury on an intimate partner; and
(2) as a result, the act caused the victim to experience a traumatic condition.

We already discussed how the term "intimate partner" was expanded by AB 16. A "traumatic condition" is a visible injury. If both elements can be proven, an accused can face serious penalties.

PC 273.5 is a "wobbler," offense, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. If a defendant is convicted of the misdemeanor, he or she faces a maximum of one-year (1) in jail, and a fine of $6,000. If a defendant is convicted of the felony, he or she faces a maximum four-year (4) prison sentence.

There also could be consequences related to a state license or a person's immigration status. One cannot forget that it also carries a social stigma. People accused of committing an act of domestic violence should consult with a criminal defense attorney. Changes in the law, possible defenses, and analysis of a particular case can be discussed.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Suing a DUI Driver for Personal Injury

Although I represent DUI defendants, and have been successful in dismissing a DUI criminal charge, there are times when a DUI can result in an accident where there is a victim. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, hundreds of individuals die each year from an accident involving a drunk driver. When an individual is injured in a motor vehicle accident because of the negligence of a drunk driver, he or she can pursue a civil claim.

Typically there will be a criminal proceeding against the alleged drunk driver. A restitution hearing may even take place. But, injured parties can also initiate their own civil claims. There is no requirement to wait for the criminal case to be completed, or even filed. However, a criminal conviction could positively impact the civil case, as the burden in a civil proceeding is much lower -- proof by a preponderance of the evidence, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is important to consult with a personal injury attorney after one has been injured as the result of a DUI driver. An attorney can investigate immediately, and determine whether there are other defendants besides the driver. Negligence may be apportioned to different individuals, or entities. Sometimes the accident could have been prevented had someone exercised good judgment and prevented the intoxicated person from driving.

A negligence cause of action could also be pursued against a bar, nightclub, or restaurant. Legislators have passed laws obligating operators of drinking establishments to use reasonable judgment when serving alcohol to its patrons. When a bartender keeps serving drinks to an intoxicated person when the bartender knew or should have known that the person was intoxicated, the bar could be held liable for the actions of that intoxicated person if he or she causes an accident later.

Similarly, hosts of parties can also be held liable for the negligence of a drunk guest. A party host cannot keep serving drinks to a guest who appears inebriated. Steps need to be taken by hosts to ensure that their guests do not harm others, especially when there are so many different opportunities to prevent a drunk driving incident.

Of course the driver may be sued, and his or her own insurance will need to be notified. The important thing is that in a DUI incident resulting in injuries, there are ways to be made whole again. Vehicle repair costs, medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages are all damages that can be claimed. If you or someone you know has been a victim of a drunk driving incident, call an experienced attorney.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Proposition 47: Reducing Felonies to Misdemeanors

Proposition 47 passed in the last California state election and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of individuals have benefited. Voters understood that a lot was at stake. For far too long, Californians had accepted severe overcrowding in prisons. They also tolerated criminal records affecting people for a lifetime. Things have changed.

The most popular provision in Proposition 47 was the way in which drug crimes and minor theft crimes were handled. Incarcerated defendants were able to petition for release. Instead of treating every drug offender as a felon, steps were taken to acknowledge that substance abuse should be handled differently. Similarly, less violent convicts were spared from having to serve more time in state prison. So far, it has been estimated that over 2,000 non-violent inmates have been released.

Some are unaware of other relief available pursuant to Proposition 47. There is a section that deals with applications to reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors. The consequences of a reduction could positively impact a person in a number of ways.

Proposition 47 stated, in part:

"According to Section 1170.18, subdivision (f), “[a] person who has completed his or her sentence for a conviction, whether by trial or plea, of a felony or felonies who would have been guilty of a misdemeanor under this act had this act been in effect at the time of the offense, may file an application before the trial court that entered the judgment of conviction in his or her case to have the felony conviction or convictions designated as misdemeanors.”

Again, most of the felonies eligible for reduction relief are drug crimes, and theft crimes where the value of the items did not exceed a certain amount. When an application is filed, and served to the District Attorney, it is only a matter of time before eligible applicants reap the benefits.

Employers almost always ask whether prospective employees have been convicted of a felony. If an individual qualifies for Proposition 47 reduction relief, it could change the way he or she answers that question.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pursuing a Homeowners Insurance Claim

There are insurance policies for almost everything. Californians know that celebrities hold insurance policies to their own body parts even. Automobile insurance is the most familiar, but there is also homeowners insurance, which is also well known. Home-buyers are sometimes required to purchase homeowners insurance before they can move in. 

Homeowners insurance covers a wide variety of different events. Fires, floods, theft, and dog bites are just a few. Both liability (coverage for negligence of the homeowner) and losses (damages that homeowners incur) are covered. There are exclusions and exceptions. Delays, denials, and confusion can be anticipated.

Every policy is different; attorneys can assist in pursuing a first party claim, particularly if the insurance company has issued a denial. A first party claim is when a policyholder pursues a claim pursuant to the policy purchased. For example, a first party claim could be made when a home is burglarized, and there is a provision that covers items stolen.

Since insurance law is based on case law, statutes, and regulations, there are a myriad of ways a policy can be interpreted. It is important, however, to know some basic principles. Here is a non-exhaustive short list:

1) Once a claim is reported, the insurance carrier must provide basic information to the policyholder -- like limits, benefits, coverages, exclusions, and other provisions in the specific policy in place.

2) An insurer must explain why a claim has been denied, and provide a basis for that decision. For example, if a claim was denied because the insurer did not have an opportunity to inspect the premises, it would have to show that a request was made and the request was denied.

3) Before an insurance carrier can ask for a "release," it must explain the legal consequences of having the claimant execute the release, i.e. forever barring the claimant from pursuing the claim further in court, or in arbitration.

4) The insurer must respond within 15 days if a claimant asks for information related to his or her claim. An insurer cannot ignore its own insured.

5) All insurance companies must investigate a claim with diligence, thoroughness, and in good faith. The insurer cannot delay a claim when there is sufficient, reasonable information to conclude the claim.

Pursuing a homeowners insurance claim can be daunting. It is important to know your rights and to be aggressive. It is extremely wise to contact an experienced attorney.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fighting a Drunk in Public Charge

Hollywood and other Los Angeles cities are home to numerous dance clubs and bars. With drinking establishments, there is always the risk of becoming intoxicated, and making bad decisions. Some choices could lead to legal trouble.

Most people are aware that it is unlawful, dangerous, and unwise to drive after a night out drinking. Some are unaware that it is a crime to be "drunk in public." Similar to a driving under the influence allegation, a drunk in public criminal charge could lead to a criminal record, jail time, and adverse employment consequences.

California Penal Code section 647 prohibits disorderly conduct. One aspect of disorderly conduct is being "drunk in public." Subsection (f) of Pen. Code section 647, prohibits being intoxicated in public to such an extent that you cannot care for the safety of yourself or others, or so drunk that you obstruct a street, sidewalk, or public way. Let's break down the elements:

(1) Intoxicated in a public place; and
(2) Cannot care for the safety of oneself or others, OR obstructing a street, sidewalk, or public way.

An arrest can occur if a drunk person is exhibiting behavior sufficient to meet element 2. One example: Danny the Drunk leaves the bar at 2:00 am, after having consumed ten shots of tequila. Danny the Drunk drank too much, and starts to have trouble walking. He can't go further than five feet, before he falls onto the street. Danny the Drunk is not hurt, but he blocks a group of nuns from walking by. Policeman Peter sees the whole thing and arrests Danny the Drunk for being "drunk in public."

Now, like every other criminal charge, there are ways to challenge a drunk in public allegation. A defendant could challenge the probable cause of the arrest. Like in my blog post about 1538 motions, a case can be dismissed if the arresting officer arrested the defendant without sufficient probable cause. Danny may be not be drunk at all; he could suffer from a medical condition that caused him to fall onto the street.

The prosecutor also has to prove both elements beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant could challenge the "public" aspect of the crime. If a person was arrested while in a hotel, or store, both private businesses, he or she could argue that he or she was not in a public place.

Another way to challenge a drunk in public charge is if the defendant ingested an intoxicating drug involuntarily. For example, say Alan wants to play a prank on his friend Stu. Alan buys Stu a drink, but drops a Rufilin into the drink. Unbeknownst to Stu, while taking a drink, he is also taking an intoxicating drug. If Stu later cannot care for himself, in a public place, and was arrested, he would be able to successfully beat the "drunk in public" charge.

A lot of cases involve a person who was drunk, but not so drunk that he or she could not care for himself or herself. If you or someone you know is charged with a drunk in public criminal charge, it is wise to retain a criminal defense attorney. The potential penalties are too great.