Every day across the inland region, approximately two thousand Riverside and San Bernardino County residents seek justice through the courts, whether defending themselves from alleged crime(s), righting a civil wrong, probating an estate, deciding placement of an at-risk child, or assigning a guardian for a dependent adult or minor, in addition to a myriad of other legal issues.
Criminal or civil, most of these cases are processed through Riverside and San Bernardino Superior Courts.
Official decisions in these cases can be life-changing whether such decisions are made by the arresting officer(s), the charging district attorney, jurors or a judge, the future direction of peoples’ lives are often altered by them.
These officials yield extraordinary power in this region; yet, they remain among the least accountable to the constituents they serve.
Law Enforcement and Accountability
For those charged with crimes, their “quest for justice” begins with sheriff deputies or city police, and/or the district attorney’s office.
In August 2018, the ACLU found California was the most secretive state in the country for denying CA DOJ access to police misconduct records.
Between 2018 and 2021, the California Legislature passed three bills increasing law enforcement transparency and accountability.
Senate Bill 1421, restored the public’s right to records of investigations into law enforcement officers. Senate Bill 16 expanded access to police misconduct records, and Senate Bill 2 authorized decertification of law enforcement officers involved in serious misconduct.
Following the enactments of these bills, law enforcement resisted producing these records, litigating the issue in court, with the court siding with transparency.
District Attorneys and Accountability
According to the California Lawyers Association, 2020 statistics compiled by the State Bar of California (State Bar) showed almost 17,500 cases, including district attorneys, related to attorney misconduct (under 1% of licensed attorneys in California).
Of 17,500 cases, the State Bar filed 180 notices of disciplinary charges against attorneys, 79 were disbarred, 114 suspended. It is unclear whether any of these involved district attorneys or assistant district attorneys.
The most common disciplinary violations were incompetent representation, lack of communication, inappropriate termination of the attorney-client relationship, conflicts of interest, misuse of client trust accounts, and unauthorized practice of law.
Prosecutorial misconduct occurs when a prosecutor breaks a law or a code of professional ethics while prosecuting a case.
Judges and Accountability
In 2016, the California Legislature authorized the California Auditor (Auditor) to investigate the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP). The Auditor’s report on its findings dated April 25, 2019, determined, “Weaknesses in its oversight have created opportunities for judicial misconduct to persist.”
With this in mind, a review of disciplinary records at CJP found that from 1960 to present (a period of more than 60 years), at least twenty judges were disciplined, with some being disciplined more than once. Of those judges disciplined, two are among the 176 judges now sitting at the Riverside and San Bernardino Superior Courts.
“The judiciary cannot exist without the trust and confidence of the people. Judges must, therefore, be accountable to legal and ethical standards,” proclaimed David J. Sachar, Advisory Board Member of the National Center for State Courts.
Making the case for increased accountability
In this series, Black Voice News will examine four court cases, two criminal and two civil (one divorce, one probate) currently working their way through the legal process in either Riverside or San Bernardino Superior Court.
These cases, brought to us by Black Voice News readers, are highlighted because a review of supporting documents and court decisions are raising questions about whether these sources are receiving appropriate service by the judicial system in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Criminal Justice in the I.E. Is it Fair? Is it Equitable?
A Cato Institute report describes America’s criminal justice system as “rotten to the core” detailing criminal defendants coerced into plea bargains, with courts turning a blind-eye to the reality of 95% of criminal convictions (2020) were guilty pleas, not jury trials.
Black Voice News will examine the data and impact the criminal justice system has upon minority populations in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
The 2020 Census showed 18.7% of the nation’s population is Latino. In the Inland Empire, however, the Latino population is a significantly larger portion of the population. In 2020. 49.7% of residents in Riverside County identified as Hispanic or Latino, and in San Bernardino County the percentage was even higher at 55.8.
While the over-representation of Black Americans in the criminal justice system is well-documented, not as much is known about the impact of incarceration on the Hispanic community.
A midyear 2021 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics however, reported about 49% of local jail inmates were White, 35% were Black, and 14% were Hispanic. If 14% appears disproportionate, consider this finding revealed in a 2016 report by The Urban Institute (Institute) “No one knows exactly how many Latinos are arrested each year or how many are in prison, on probation, or on parole.”
Based on a survey of state criminal justice data conducted by the Institute, this is because few states’ reports include data relative to Latinos, thereby no accurate annual data overall, exists in the United States regarding who are arrested, in prison, on probation, or on parole.
The Institute noted that states with large Latino populations like California for example did not necessarily have better data.
A recent report released in March by the UCI School of Social Ecology, made a similar assessment. It noted that while “Latino and White rates of justice involvement were similar, and in many cases rates of Latinos were lower than that of Whites, these findings may be a result of the inaccurate representation of Latinos in criminal justice data”. The report further noted that” the inconsistent storage of data on Latinos affects systemwide understanding of racial and ethnic disparities.”According to a 2022 ACLU report titled (In)Justice in Riverside: A Case for Change and Accountability, because “the DA’s data does not differentiate between race and ethnicity, it is difficult to compare the incarceration rates of Latinx residents to the county population overall.”
According to a Pew report, the courts acknowledge that discrimination has been embedded in the system itself, and that people of color, specifically Black Americans, were historically treated differently by the legal system than their White peers and are identifying steps to reduce racial disparities.
A Criminal Case Where Official Documents Don’t Add Up
Part 2 of this series will focus on a criminal case involving a Latino male, referred to as Jose, charged by the Riverside District Attorney for allegedly being over the age of 21, and enticing a minor to two different incident locations in order to engage in sexual intercourse.
Black Voice News examined official records documenting events in the case where Jose’s bail company authorized an unlicensed fugitive agent from a non-existent business entity, according to the California Secretary of State, to arrest Jose twice without legal authority. This fugitive agent is alleged to be working with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Jose’s bail was also increased tenfold (“$25,000 to $250,000”) after being denied access to the Indio Larson Center by Allied International Security during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Jose arrived for his hearing on time and was suffering from allergies. He was officially denied access because security mistakenly believed he exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
Despite timely notification of the court, the district attorney, the courtroom bailiff, and filing a Request to Calendar, asking the court to schedule a hearing, a bench warrant was issued for Jose’s arrest (the court is not required, nor does it notify defendants when bench warrants are issued).
This is just the beginning of what appears to be questionable actions and failures of processes involved in this case.
Connected White-Collar Criminals Appear to Receive Special Treatment
Part 3 of this series will explore a white-collar criminal case, ongoing over 15 years in San Bernardino County. It involves two, formerly high-profile individuals, Tad Honeycutt, former mayor of the City of Hesperia, and Charles Steven Cox, former insurance executive.
The men are accused of embezzling $5.5 million from charter schools throughout the State of California, including several in San Bernardino County, resulting in school failures, negatively impacting 6,000 students, their parents, teachers and other charter school employees.
In March 2009, the defendants’ bails were exonerated (waived) and shortly thereafter their release terms were modified. Cox was allowed to travel out of state and Honeycutt to travel internationally. Official records show Honeycutt now resides out of the country even though the criminal case is still pending.
This case raises concerns related to unequal treatment compared to average criminal defendants, who are unable to pay bail, whose bail is not being exonerated, and who must remain incarcerated awaiting trial and who, on occasion, die in custody.
According to CalMatters at least 1,300 people throughout California are stuck for years in county jails without being convicted of any crime and the numbers are increasing due to several factors, defense attorneys needing more time to prepare, prosecutors seeking stiff sentences requiring extra hearings, and judges struggling to manage their crowded calendars.
Additionally, the court and district attorney’s failure of fiduciary responsibility, as to the stewarding of taxpayer dollars, not only regarding the alleged $5.5 million, but also the untold cost of holding over 15 years of hearings in this still unresolved case.
A Divorce Case Raises Questions of Fairness and a Right to be Heard
Part 4 of this series will examine a divorce case, ongoing for over 19 years, involving wife, and mother Karla Pope, who is now seeking her portion of her former husband’s pension after discovering he misrepresented key details to the court, details that could have change the outcome, possibly resulting in Pope receiving an allocation of his pension.
However, before Pope can file a document, she is required to receive court approval after the Riverside Superior Court labeled her “a vexatious litigant.” A vexatious litigant is defined as a person who has filed five unsuccessful complaints, other than small claims cases, in the preceding seven-year period.
To date, Riverside Superior Court records indicate Karla Pope filed two cases, her divorce case, and a request for a restraining order. In addition, Pope was involved with three successful cases in the Los Angeles Superior Court, therefore she does not meet the requirements of a “vexatious litigant” as defined by law. Pope filed motions with the court, asking to be removed from the list of vexatious litigants, to no avail.
Pope claims after the court unilaterally, and without notice, took sole custody of her children from her at a February 23, 2006 hearing and she challenged the court’s actions, the court retaliated, labeling her a vexatious litigant on December 19, 2008.
The court docket in the Pope case does not reflect a hearing on February 23, 2006, yet Pope has provided Black Voice News with a filed-stamped copy of the emergency Order to Show Cause to Modify Child Custody dated February 23, 2006.
Since May 2018, Pope has attempted to reopen the issue regarding the division of her ex-husband, Bruce Pope’s, pension benefits without success.
Did the City of Victorville Misappropriate Property from an Estate in Probate Court?
In Part 5, the final story will examine a probate case where the administrator of the estate claims an attorney, who is counsel for the City of Victorville, and the director of community services for the City of Victorville, possibly assisted in an alleged misappropriation of property from the estate.
The administrator provided Black Voice News with a grant deed recorded on March 28, 2006, where three parcels from the estate were transferred to the City of Victorville for $25,000 by someone claiming to be the administrator.
According to the administrator, however, she did not authorize the exchange and the estate never received any of the funds paid for the property.
After a report revealed abuse in California conservatorships handled through probate court, the state created the Professional Fiduciary Bureau under the California Department of Consumer Affairs to regulate non-family member professional fiduciaries.
The report also found the new regulatory agency never issued a citation for abuse and has only one investigator to look into the hundreds of complaints received, concluding the industry has little oversight to the process thus providing a potentially open door to abuse.
Adding to losses suffered by Black families when a family member passes away, is a finding that most don’t have a will, leaving a deceased’s property subject to probate. Financial experts are warning that the lack of estate planning among U.S. low-income and minority communities leaves families at risk of losing what is often their largest single asset, potentially propagating long standing racial inequalities.
Due Process: Seeking Justice in Southern California’s Inland Empire
Part 1: Searching for Accountability