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Because prosecutors oppose pretrial release, judges tend to go along with them. More pretrial release would result in cases moving more slowly through the courts. It would probably result in more motions and litigation, as opposed to early pleas. More defendants would have a better chance of having their cases dismissed or settled with less emphasis on jail as a punishment. However, removing the pressure to plea unrelated to guilt or innocence caused by pretrial detention will improve the quality of justice. More in-depth litigation should result in fairer, more accurate outcomes, which would improve public confidence in the court system.

A slower moving court system that does not coerce pleas through pretrial detention may also give prosecutors and judges incentive to make more precise decisions about who to prosecute and incarcerate. It may encourage local governments and law enforcement to reconsider priorities, including finding ways to address drug use, homelessness, and mental illness without criminalization. On June 28, , Dante Johnson was visiting friends in Palmdale, a town about two hours from his home in Inglewood, [] and did not come back home until the next day.

Meanwhile, that afternoon, two Inglewood Police officers on patrol saw a young man wearing gang colors riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. When they pulled up within 50 feet of him, he got off his bike and ran down an alley. The officers chased but could not catch the man, who scaled a fence, dropping a gun as he did so. The officers picked up the gun and later wrote a report. They said they knew the person who ran, but did not identify him by name or in any other way. They gave a fairly generic description—young, black, male, average size and weight.

The only distinguishing feature they described was a severe case of facial acne. The next day, Dante, 18, was taking a walk outside his home when the same officers came up and arrested him, claiming he was the man who had run from them. Dante had been convicted of a 2nd degree burglary when he was 14, [] and placed on probation. He was arrested for a fight when he was As an adult, he had gotten a ticket for loitering.

On his first court date, his arraignment, Dante told his lawyer they had the wrong person and described where he had been. The lawyer became convinced Dante was not guilty, and that he could win at trial. They agreed to fight the case.

The prosecutor had filed serious charges against Dante. The base charges were felony possession of a concealed weapon [] and possession of a loaded firearm. Because of the seriousness of the potential consequences and the strength of his defense, he and his lawyer agreed that he must fight the case. So Dante sat in jail while his attorney worked on the case. His attorney appointed a fingerprint expert to examine the gun and had an investigator go to Palmdale to locate the alibi witnesses and find the register Dante had signed at the swimming pool he had gone to during his trip to Palmdale.

He identified other people who had negative experiences with these officers, who might testify to their dishonesty. The process was time-consuming. Investigations were slow. Witnesses were hard to find. After 60 days in custody, Dante was desperate. Each time, sheriffs would wake him up at 4 a. Then he would have to wait in other holding tanks, sometimes all day, fending off other prisoners, sitting on concrete benches, waiting for his court appearance.

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He would spend hours in the holding cell at the jail, waiting to be processed back to his cell. There were constantly new cell mates, always a concern given the gang and racial tension in the jail, and new deputies, who hit prisoners with flashlights or threw them on the floor. There were constant fights, usually between prisoners of different races.

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Deputies let them outside for three hours, one day a week. His lawyer argued with him through the glass partition in the attorney interview cell next to the courtroom that he had to fight the case. There was no chance the judge would give Dante an own recognizance release.

But the prosecutor knew the weakness of his case and that a plea deal would be an easy way to get a conviction. Dante ate a home-cooked meal that night. Wealthy people can afford to pay for their pretrial freedom if the judge sets bail, avoiding the misery of jail and gaining the benefit of being out of custody while fighting their case.

Poor and middle-income people, on the other hand, face a dilemma. For some, the dilemma is easily, if unhappily, resolved, because they simply have no money or chance of obtaining enough money to bail out. Others must decide: stay in jail until the case is resolved, often by an early guilty plea, or incur crushing debt. Poor living conditions, including over-crowding, unhealthy food, lack of medical treatment, violence from other prisoners and guards, the desire and need to work, stay in school, care for dependents, and pay rent motivate many to accept the financial burden of paying bail.

People also put themselves in financial peril to pay bail because they know that being out of custody vastly improves their chances of successfully resolving their case.

Coerced Guilty Pleas

The benefit of being out of custody is known to everyone involved in the system. Victor Lawrence, arrested in Alameda County on a misdemeanor charge, bailed out immediately:. Judges, lawyers, and court administrators who spoke to Human Rights Watch acknowledged the benefit of being out of custody when fighting a case, citing, among other things, the logistical difficulties of assisting in a defense from jail.

Statistical analysis supports the perceived benefit of being out of jail. The Arnold study found that detained defendants were 4. It found that detained defendants served 2.


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The Arnold study does not purport to show that pretrial detention causes the disparity in outcomes, and critics have argued that their study does not sufficiently control for seriousness of offense. Human Rights Watch analysis of Sacramento County data supports the perception that being out of jail leads to better results in court, as the longer time to resolve the case generally means a better opportunity to prepare and present a defense. It allows the accused to work, earn money, and pay for better representation, including experts and investigators.

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It allows the accused to enroll in drug treatment programs or psychological counselling, attend school, maintain or gain employment, pay restitution, or do other activities that will show the judge and prosecutor that they deserve lenience. Being out of jail allows the accused to help locate evidence and witnesses that might be impossible to find without their participation.

It is also true that being at liberty can allow a defendant the opportunity to intimidate a witness or destroy evidence. Daria was a year-old college student in Los Angeles, hoping to be a lawyer. She had a good job as a waitress and was saving some money. She cared for her unemployed mother. Sarah was also 20 and without prior convictions. She and Daria were arrested for a series of robberies in which—according to testimony at the preliminary hearing—neither actively participated, although they were in the car at the scene. Both were jailed, with bail set, as their case went through the court process.

Daria said she was locked in her cell 23 hours a day, with no exercise and nothing to do but read or sleep.


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She was surrounded by people who were constantly fighting. Daria lost her job. She had to withdraw from school for the semester. She had to check in with the bondsman every week, or they would revoke her bail. But at least she was out.

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