My bullshit legal case began with charges for a felony hit-and-run plus two misdemeanors: DUI and driving while on a suspended license. I’ve already blogged about it previously so I won’t rehash the events that lead up to it, so for the sake of brevity let me just say that the charges were largely bullshit. And the D.A. knew it, as evidenced by the felony being changed to a misdemeanor because a felony only applies to a hit-and-run that involves injury and nobody was harmed. It wouldn’t have led to a conviction so the prosecutor reduced it for a better sell. She also dropped the suspended license charge because my license was from out-of-state, but valid. So I was facing two misdemeanors: hit-and-run and DUI.
The best offer I received, despite a blood test proving my innocence of DUI and mitigating circumstances behind the hit-and-run, was to plead to both charges as they stood and in exchange there would be 3 years of probation in lieu of jail-time. If the D.A. had only pushed the hit-and-run I’d have maybe taken a deal since a jury trial could have gone either way. My odds were 50/50 at best. But to push the DUI…? Madness. The evidence did more than establish reasonable doubt, it was as conclusive as it gets.
After my awful court experience in New York I’d learned how to spot a bluff. This D.A. did NOT want to go to trial if one of the two charges was all but guaranteed not to stick. And the charges complemented each other. Establishing I was under the influence would be the most damning evidence to support the hit-and-run. The D.A. needed that support, but it was baseless. So her best course was to threaten me with the fear of jail.
She didn’t know me very well.
My lawyer thought we would lose the hit-and-run at trial and that even the DUI was a crapshoot. I admitted we’d be rolling the dice on the former but I couldn’t disagree more about the latter. I didn’t fear a trial because I felt I’d be found innocent of one charge and maybe guilty of the other. That would still be a better outcome in the long run than the plea deal, aside from the subsequent jail sentence instead of probation. Still, I didn’t want to get cocky either. I requested a week to consider the offer.
Even that was a mistake because it didn’t take long to research and further confirm my position. I didn’t bother waiting the full week. I’d made up my mind and produced a counter-offer: I would plead to a single misdemeanor of reckless driving with no community service, no fines, no probation, no bullshit. Anything short of that and I made it clear that I was prepared and ready for trial, which I knew the D.A. wanted to avoid. But this way she’d still get some kind of guilty plea out of me and could add another conviction to her quota. Win-win.
The one catch was that I’d have to be open to potential jail time at the Judge’s discretion. Reckless driving only carried a penalty of 5 to 90 days and I knew the overpopulated LA County jails couldn’t hold me for long with such a low-level misdemeanor offense. So I accepted and had 30 days to turn myself in for sentencing. My lawyer wisely advised that early-releases usually took place on Fridays to free up cells for the weekend. Turning myself in on a Thursday would be the best option. The day before Labor Day weekend just barely fell within the 30 days, so I opted for September 1, 2016. I expected a flood of DUI cases to pour in and jam up the system.
The Judge sentenced me to the full 90 days. Low level offenders especially tend to serve 10% of their sentences in Los Angeles, so really I was looking at a 9 day stint in the county jail. With 8 days credit already from the initial arrest (I’d been held for 4 days and it gets doubled for crediting purposes). By all rights I expected to only serve a day.
After sentencing I was immediately put into a holding cell where I observed just how racially biased the LA County system really was. The cells had labels on them for BLACK and HISPANIC, with the non-designated cells being WHITE by default. The segregation was blatant and shameless. And disturbing.
Further upsetting were the bracelets we had latched onto our left wrists. It had our names, inmate numbers, and a barcode. Whenever we walked into a room there was a guard with a scanner. Inmates would walk in as though an assembly line, products being scanned at a grocery store with our barcodes scanned. BOOP. BOOP. BOOP. It was fucking vile.
A few dozen of us were transferred to Twin Towers Correctional for reception, that wonderful process where they force everyone to strip, be (ahem) thoroughly searched, shower as a group, be mentally and physically evaluated, etc. with large gaps of waiting time between each step of the process before being assigned to a permanent housing facility. About 18 of us were crammed into a small, empty room with just a single exposed toilet and two benches. We were held in there for 14+ hours with the temperature set at 60 degrees, denied food and any right to a phone call. Because the room was so small most of us had to lay on the filthy concrete floor to sleep. I didn’t recall seeing this level of third world conditions even in New York.
The next morning, around 10am, a few of us were fortunate enough to be shipped off to our housing facility where we would be assigned an actual bed. And food. I say fortunate because until you have a housing assignment it’s unlikely you’ll be released. I was confused over why they’d bothered to ship me at all since I was likely to be let out so soon. Why bus me from Van Nuys holding to Twin Towers Correctional to yet another facility when I would just be released from Twin Towers in a matter of days? It made me question how much of my sentence I’d actually be serving…
(Turned out the real reason was that the state pays the private prison $800 per inmate per transport. So by bouncing inmates between facilities they could bill extra hours. See how that works? Clever bastards).
I ended up at North County Correctional and my bed didn’t have even have the thin mattress material I’d expected. It was a metal slab and a blanket. No pillow. Still, it was much better than shivering on the filthy concrete. We all shared a large open cell, 20 rows of triple-bunks on each of the two floors.
The segregated system established by the guards gave an unhealthy greenlight to inmates to follow suit. When I walked in an asian immediately approached me and asked, “You white?” I sighed and replied, “Last I checked, I think so.” The inmate was not amused. He pointed to the first floor, far left batch of beds. “Whites are over there,” he said. The population appeared to be 50% hispanic, 40% black, and 10% asian or white.
I went over to the white section to pick out a bed (top bunk, obviously) and was approached by all the white people. We discussed the justice system, the election, traded notes on our respective cases, etc. Then they kinda left me and came back. They had voted to make me Leader of the Whites. Apparently each ethnic group had a “leader” that would speak at the end of each day and would act as mediator for any conflicts with the other races. The number one rule of surviving jail/prison is to avoid being a target and that meant staying off the radar. There also had been a stabbing in the large cell next to ours, so this seemed even more important than ever to stay anonymous. I thanked them for the vote of confidence and turned down the job. Though I have to admit, “Leader of the Whites” would have been a pretty cool title. They were disappointed, but we patched things up with a game of spades. I’d forgotten how to play, but I relearned and lost terribly. After that I went back to my metal slab and did my best to fall asleep.
I woke up to a guard shouting my name around 8pm. “Roll it up!” he said. I was already being transferred, likely back to Twin Towers for release. The white inmates looked depleted. There were only five of us, so losing even one was a significant blow. One of them shook my hand and said, “Well, at least you learned to play spades with us.” I smiled and replied, “Yes… I learned how to lose.”
The ride back was memorable. The inmates are seated two by two with a chain connecting every group of four. The one I was chained to and I were the first on the bus, so we got the back seat. It was dark enough out that we were able to sit on the top of the seats to see out the windows and chill to the shitty rap music the guards were blasting. It was a perfect moment for a joint.
Once we got back the process became ridiculously inefficient. Background checks for local warrants had to be done, clothing and property returned… I expected it to take a couple of hours. Hell, maybe three. But I ended up laying on the concrete floor in holding (AGAIN) until 3:30am on Saturday. When the doors finally opened the inmates started yelling at the guards on the way out. “So long you fucking prick!” one of them yelled. “Fuck youuuuu!” another inmate echoed. The one guard, who had truly been a prick, couldn’t do anything about it. We were no longer state property and freedom of speech had been restored. So all he did was yell back, “Your fucking ass will be back here soon enough, you fucking asshole!” He wasn’t much for leading by example.
It was too late at night to call anyone for a ride and the trains were no longer running. I was about to fork over the twenty bucks for an Uber ride back to my apartment, but one of the others released offered a free ride. I told him I’d chip in for gas but he said, “No, not after… no, that’s not right.” You have to experience being jailed to understand what it’s like to share that nightmare with a group. Not just a holding cell, but being fully processed, chained, and shipped around as a human product just to please the shareholders of a for-profit prison corporation. Nothing binds a people quite like a shared traumatic injustice.
I wandered back into my apartment, amazed that so much had actually happened in such a short amount of time. I’d underestimated the time-warp that happens when caged. Try watching paint dry for one full hour while cold, hungry, filthy, and wearing chains and you’ll start to get an idea. Seriously, try it. If enough people understood maybe the masses would finally rally by the millions for serious change.
In the end, I managed to reduce a felony and two misdemeanors to a single, greatly-reduced misdemeanor and turned 3 years of probation into less than 48hrs of incarceration. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a goddamn victory and a marked improvement over my prior experience. Traumatic? Of course. It always is. But it was worth the short-term hell to more quickly close the book on this chapter of my life. I will never set foot in a jail cell or court room again.
A few tips of advice for anyone with a pending legal problem:
1) DO NOT ACCEPT THE FIRST OFFER. Or the second. Or the third. 95% of cases nationwide are resolved with plea deals, not trials, so keep that in mind. The longer a case drags on the more money the State has to spend and cases pile up quickly, especially in major cities. The prosecutor doesn’t want a trial any more than you do, so use that to your advantage and run out the clock.
2) STAY CONFIDENT. A prosecutor will eventually start using terms like “final”, “trial”, and “jail” to scare you into a deal. “Plead to this or we’ll go to trial!” is my favorite, because it’s such a transparent bluff. There is always a final offer shortly before a trial. Count on it. Don’t use the full time granted for considering a deal and make it clear you aren’t intimidated by the threat of jail.
3) KNOW WHEN TO CONCEDE. If the evidence is strongly against you then odds are good you should accept a plea deal. But still, don’t take the first few offers. At the same time, don’t play games for too long or you’ll wind up being convicted in a trial and the penalties if found guilty will be much more severe. But if you’re facing only non-violent/non-drug misdemeanor charges, push it to the max.
4) DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. Just as prosecutors want to timely wrap up a case, so do lawyers. This isn’t to say they’ll cut corners, but sometimes they might suggest taking a plea deal sooner than is actually necessary. Google similar cases and read their outcomes, then come up with a plea deal of your own that you’d be willing to accept. Some people don’t know this, but a defendant can make offers to the D.A., not just the other way around. It also tells the prosecutor that you know what you’re doing and won’t be taken for a ride. Prosecutor’s prey on ignorance and fear. It’s their bread and butter. Gut them of that and they’re left with little else.
Hopefully you’ll never be in a position to find out…