A hammer, a pizza guy, and $60 - Page 4

A hammer, a pizza guy, and $60: how California's probation system can skew criminal justice

He says police arrested him because of his background and because he lied to them about being in the garage — "I just panicked. I know how it is. I got priors."

He didn't bother with a coat of sugar.

"The guy was small. I'm a big boy. I don't need no fuckin' hammer to get him. I'm just sayin'. I'm 300 pounds. If I would have used that hammer on that man, he would have been dead."

The pizza driver survived after being transferred to San Francisco General Hospital but suffered a skull fracture and lacerations that took 30 staples in his head to repair. He still gets headaches and can't remember anything about that night.


Nearly two decades ago the California Supreme Court declared that a lower standard of proof was sufficient to put suspects behind bars for vioutf8g the terms of their probation.

A judge convicted Juan Carlos Rodriguez of vioutf8g his probation in 1988 after a convenience store employee in King City testified that Rodriguez had shoplifted several pairs of utility gloves. The judge relied on a diluted standard of proof known as "a preponderance of the evidence" to revoke his probation rather than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" required from juries at full-blown criminal trials.

Rodriguez appealed and won. But prosecutors took the case to the state's highest court, and in 1990 the justices decided that state case law already permitted a lower standard of proof known as "clear and convincing evidence." In effect, the court ruled, the state could send a person on probation back to jail on as little proof as it wanted. Besides, the justices argued, a higher standard amounted to retrying a criminal who'd already been granted the court's grace and would unnecessarily burden the system.

Coincidentally, former San Francisco DA Arlo Smith filed a friend of the court brief in People v. Rodriguez supporting the state's position.

But at least one concurring judge worried ominously that with a lower threshold for alleged probation violations, "an unfortunate incentive might arise to use the revocation hearing as a substitute for a criminal prosecution."

Former supervisor Matt Gonzalez, who worked as a public defender prior to his time at City Hall, says that's exactly what's happened. He recalls a case that surfaced years after Rodriguez involving a woman named Mary Elizabeth Alcoser. Although she had a long history of trouble ranging from severe narcotics abuse to prostitution dating back to the 1970s, according to criminal records, after police charged her with assault in a 1997 case, she was fully acquitted by a jury, citing self-defense.

"Even though she was acquitted," Gonzalez said, "the judge sent her to prison on a probation violation, because he determined that by a lower standard of proof, she was guilty.... The real question is, who benefits when you don't have the higher standard of proof employed?"

In another case, Gonzalez represented a Hispanic man facing robbery charges following an incident at a Mission bar. A witness described the assailant during testimony as African American.

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