In 33 years of practice, I have represented thousands of clients around the state. I have had dozens of jury trials – everything from first-degree murder to driving under the influence. While my emphasis in recent years has been in marijuana cases, I continue to handle virtually every type of criminal charge. In rare instances, I represent civil clients. Here is a sampling of “noteworthy” cases I’ve handled:
$390,000 Award for Deputy’s Excessive Force
In 1994, I, along with super star civil rights attorney John Burris, represented George Nichols in a lawsuit against Santa Cruz County alleging unlawful arrest and excessive force. Mr. Nichols recovered $390,000 in this highly publicized case. His wife had been videotaping their children when a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputy began an illegal arrest and assault. Mrs. Nichols videotaped her husband’s beating and arrest. That famous video led to our appearances on many national and international news programs including the Geraldo show in New York City.
Following the assault, we filed a suit against the county which led to a finding by a federal judge that the deputy had violated Mr. Nichol’s civil rights. As a result the County was required to pay nearly $500,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to Mr. Nichols. Incredibly, despite the ruling, the deputy was allowed to remain on the force.
We are fortunate to have a high percentage of women and men in law enforcement. People in Santa Cruz County are smart, and largely hold prosecutors and cops to high standards. That’s how it should be.
View the video of the illegal arrest and beating video.
The So Called “Road Rage Murder” Case
In 1997, I was retained by David T. to represent him in what became Santa Cruz’s infamous “road rage murder case.” David was chased at midnight by a intoxicated and enraged driver over Highway 17 from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. After pulling off and on the freeway and reversing directions, David finally pulled over at the exit lane for the 41st Ave turnoff, put on his emergency flashers, and hoped the driver would pass on. Instead, the driver pulled over, jumped out of his car and walked towards David’s car. David was a San Jose restaurant owner who was carrying a large amount of money in his car for deposit the following day. He had also made a mistake – he carried a gun in his car with no training in its use. When David tried to scare the attacker off by showing him the gun, the attacker grabbed the gun. In the ensuing struggle for the gun, it went off, killing the attacker with one shot. In a panic, instead of going home to Aptos and calling police, David droveto his parents’ home in San Jose. Police identified David as the shooter because the attacker had written down his license plate number and had left it on his front seat. Learning the police were after him he called me. We met at my office and we photographed his injuries. We explained what was ahead and made arrangements to turn him in. We told him what was going to happen. We surrendered him.
Due to the publicity the incident received and the District Attorney’s initial tactics, I knew I needed to assemble a great legal team consisting of the best people available. I hired Margaret Marr as our research attorney. A 1985 Graduate of Yale Law School, Ms. Marr has crafted outstanding legal briefs through the years and has helped win dismissals in many difficult cases. While she continues to do select contract research and writing, she is now a law school professor in Washington DC – firstname.lastname@example.org. Robert S. Bortnick was the private investigator (PI) on the team (Bortnick and Associates 831.423.5122.) Bob Bortnick is a brilliant PI with over 35 years of national and international investigation experience. Phyllis Wasserstrom assisted in jury selection and mojo.
The County’s then District Attorney and his Chief Deputy, presented the case to the Grand Jury. They asked for and received a murder indictment. Afterwards, Superior Court Judge Yonts (now retired) agreed with us that the District Attorneys had misrepresented the evidence to the Grand Jury. The Judge threw out the murder charges against David.
The DA then re-filed the murder charges and insisted on a plea to murder. Judge Kelsay (now retired) listened to the preliminary hearing evidence and said there was enough evidence to make David plead or go to trial. The judge told me that we “Better settle this case”. The judge said this knowing the DA never offered anything other than murder.
After we learned more about David’s attacker, we figured that the attacker might have acted dangerously and aggressivelyon other occasions. Leaving no stone unturned, Bortnick checked with the neighbors of the attacker’s new Denver girlfriend and found crucial evidence. A neighbor couple had been attacked in much the same fashion as David had experienced and described. We also found a policeman in Wyoming who had stood by while the attacker’s girlfriend had removed her belongings and left him behind on a trip they were on just two weeks before his attack on David.
We prepared a first of its kind, “psychiatric autopsy”, which included exhibits showing pages from the man’s diary where he described the ruin he was living- writing about his anger alienating everything and everyone dear to him.
We spent nearly a month in trial in Judge Tom Kelly’s court presenting this and other evidence. The jury acquitted David of any murder (first or second-degree) and also of voluntary manslaughter. The jury deadlocked 10 – 2 in favor of acquittal on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Because of jury’s strong rejection of the DA’s caseand the DA’s office’s ordinary practice, it was widely expected that the DA would dismiss the final charge. Tragically for David and his family, an attorney friend had advised David to file a claim against the dead man’s family “right away in case they sue you”. Never intending to sue the family AND not knowing better (David could always file a cross complaint if they had filed against him) David filed but didn’t serve the complaint – intending to dismiss it if he wasn’t sued. A journalist found the un-served claim filed at the County Courthouse and suddenly the press was howling for David’s head. The DA chose to re-file the remaining involuntary manslaughter charge. Judge Kelly indicated a county jail sentence of one year if David would agree to plead “no contest” but David rejected the offeras he knew he was innocent.
Because of jury’s strong rejection of the DA’s case and the DA’s office’s ordinary practice, it was widely expected that the DA would dismiss the final charge. Tragically for David and his family, an attorney friend had advised David to file a claim against the dead man’s family “right away in case they sue you”. Never intending to sue the family AND not knowing better (David could always file a cross complaint if they had filed against him) David filed but didn’t serve the complaint – intending to dismiss it if he wasn’t sued. A journalist found the un-served claim filed at the County Courthouse and suddenly the press was howling for David’s head. The DA chose to re-file the remaining involuntary manslaughter charge. Judge Kelly indicated a county jail sentence of one year if David would agree to plead “no contest” but David rejected the offer as he knew he was innocent.
However, while preparing for the retrial of the remaining involuntary manslaughter charge, David’s father suffered a heart attack. He survived but as a result, David decided to end his family’s trauma, and he accepted the judge’s offer.
We believe that Dave was an innocent man so this result was unsatisfying, but David and his family had been through hell and he concluded it was in his and family’s best interest to accept the “deal”. David, his, family and I have stayed in contact through the years and I am proud to call them my friends.
After several attempts we succeeded in getting probation terminated early. We also got Judge Kelly, with the former prosecutor’s assent, to agree to an “expungement” of the conviction. (See the record clearance section).
The Defense of Mr. Twister
Oddly enough, the case that garnered more interest than any of the so-called “high profile” cases I have handled was the defense of street performer and local celebrity “Mr. Twister.” Mr. Twister is the Santa Cruz clown who makes balloon animals for children at the Wednesday Farmers Market downtown and for children’s parties. Mr. Twister was arrested for violating a law that outlawed the act of putting money in someone else’s parking meter without their permission! Putting quarters in others meters had been Mr. Twister’s plight and my “pro bozo” representation of him received international attention.
Besides appearances on national television and write-ups in People Magazine, Readers Digest and newspapers across America, Mr. Twister and I were featured on television and radio in numerous countries around the world.
WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana)
I have the honor of being the local attorney for the premier medical marijuana collective in the country: WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana). WAMM, the country’s first medical marijuana collective, has operated in Santa Cruz County for over 20 years with the blessing of local law enforcement and elected officials.
Valarie and Micahel Corral are the founders of WAMM. In 1973, Valerie was in an automobile accident that left her so severely epileptic she often suffered five seizures a day. For the next two years — Val’s doctors had her try every known legal medication to try and control her seizures. Nothing stopped the seizures and Val’s life was slipping away. Michael read that marijuana had been found helpful in stopping seizures and Val began using marijuana as an adjunct medicine. Marijuana eventually became her sole medication and Val has controlled her seizures for over thirty five years. (Is it really 40 years later that people are at last recognizing that cannabis is helping children with seizures in Colorado?
In 1992, Val was arrested in Santa Cruz with her husband Mike for the cultivation of five marijuana plants. Val became the first defendant in our state to successfully challenge the existing marijuana laws, based on the defense of “medical necessity”. This victory thrust Val and Mike into the legal, political and social foreground of this health issue.
In 1995 Val and Mike started WAMM as medical marijuana collective with 250 members. As of this writing over 155 members have died. But their deaths have been less painful and more dignified because their suffering was dramatically reduced with their use of medical marijuana.
In Val’s capacity as director of WAMM over the last nearly twenty years, she has testified before California State legislative committees of the Senate & the Assembly. She has received Proclamations and Resolutions from Santa Cruz City and Santa Cruz County and was the Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission Woman of the Year in 1997. In 2003, Val was appointed by Attorney General Bill Lockyer to the Statewide Task Force on Medical Marijuana.
Mike too has testified before State and County committees and legislative bodies and has been an expert witness many times for patients charged with criminal acts. Together, Mike and I have helped countless patients secure their freedom and good names.
Drug Enforcement Raid at the WAMM garden:
On September 5, 2002, heavily armed Federal Drug Enforcement Agents raided the WAMM garden, arrested Val and Mike and confiscated the collective’s growing marijuana. In response to their arrest, two weeks later, the City of Santa Cruz made national headlines by allowing WAMM to distribute marijuana on the steps of city hall.
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer sent a highly critical letter to John Ashcroft and the SJ Police Chief pulled his officers off of the DEA task force in protest.
As a result of the raid, Val, Mike and WAMM filed two lawsuits against the federal government, including a historic case in which the City and County of Santa Cruz signed on as co-plaintiffs, acknowledging WAMM as an integral part of the Santa Cruz Health Care system.
The pro bono litigation team assembled included myself, Santa Clara University Law School Professor Gerry Uelmen, ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, Drug Policy Alliance and the San Francisco Law Offices of Bingham and McCutcheon.
Our federal court trial judge was the Honorable Jeremy Fogel — and in his court we obtained an injunction against further DEA raids or harassment. That injunction made the WAMM garden the country’s only legal medical marijuana collective garden. Our litigation was essentially on hold pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Raich v. Ashcroft. The injunction lasted over 18 months. Judge Fogel famously called WAMM the, “Gold Standard” of medical marijuana collectives.
WAMM’s argument, argued by then ACLU attorney Graham Boyd, was that the federal government had made a practice of intentionally sabotaging state-based medical marijuana reform efforts. The case was settled Jan. 22, 2010. The ACLU’s Allen Hopper stated: “WAMM agreed to settle this case in light of the Obama administration’s commitment to change that policy and allow WAMM and similar organizations in medical marijuana states to operate without federal interference. Under the terms of the settlement, WAMM could start up its litigation right where we left off. Should the federal government once again move to target patients, we will immediately bring the case back to court.”
This is a great win for WAMM and medical marijuana patients everywhere. WAMM, the City of Santa Cruz and the County of Santa Cruz have always asserted that WAMM has been operating lawfully under California’s medical marijuana laws. That assertion was fully vindicated by this settlement. (My quote at the time.)
The Colter White Story
One of the most satisfying cases for me in recent years was representing Colter White, a 38-year-old Cabrillo College student, who had turned his life around after being in and out of trouble his entire adult life. While in Pelican Bay, California’s toughest prison, Colter decided to get his GED and make a change. He worked very hard, was paroled, and following his release became an honor student at Cabrillo College and a leader in the local Narcotics Anonymous community. Colter’s stunning turn around made him a very popular student, and his family, friends and teachers alike were excited by the prospect of his going on to a university. Unfortunately, with only a short time left on his parole from prison, Colter criticized an NA member at a meeting for using NA as a way to meet young, addicted women in order to take advantage of them. This individual had several restraining orders against him by multiple women over the years because of his conduct. He told people he was going to “get” Colter for criticizing him and said that he would “get him sent back to prison for violating parole”. Sure enough, he made a claim to police that Colter had assaulted him. There was no evidence beyond his unsubstantiated claim and the District Attorney’s Office didn’t charge Colter. Nevertheless, the Parole Department picked Colter up and sent him back to prison to await revocation proceedings. Colter’s mom, step-father, and numerous Cabrillo students and faculty held a protest on Colter’s behalf, and when I read about Colter’s plight I offered to represent him pro bono.
The chances of winning a parolee’s release after they are charged are very low. Colter’s first hearing took place in San Quentin Prison, an old, ghastly prison that feels like it was designed to emulate the Middle Age prisons of England. No witnesses are permitted at this first hearing and it was obvious the hearing officer had made up his mind that he was going to rule against us the minute the hearing started. Colter turned down his offer of a “deal” — ten months in prison — though he knew that he was risking losing at the final hearing, which would result in a harsher sentence and more prison time. We “lost the hearing” despite letters of support from the President of Cabrillo College, many faculty, staff and students, and top legislators from our area. I also submitted P.I. Bob Bortnick’s interviews with witnesses that showed the “victim’s” sordid history and motive to lie.
At the second hearing the so-called “victim” testified. It quickly became obvious that he was a liar and had filed his report out of his desire for revenge. Our witnesses were terrific and before long the Hearing Officer stopped the proceeding and found Colter innocent.
As of Janurary, 2014, Colter is continuing on his upward path. He received his BA from Santa Clara University last year and often works two jobs: one of which has been my office manager.
IN 2011, I began my representation of world famous surfer, Anthony Ruffo. Ruffo” as he is known to his friends, was a surfing legend in Santa Cruz, having become one of the best surfers in the world. It’s an all too familiar story though… Partying becomes a part of our sports hero’s life styles and eventually it takes a toll. In Ruffo’s case, he became addicted to meth. He was facing a mandatory state prison term of five years for drug charges when he hired me. Ruffo turned his life around and after more than a year of battling the DA – wound up serving seven months in the county jail. He is now in recovery and meth-free. He is more of a legend then ever: he has his family, community, and waves back.