Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Ross Concedes Error in Jailing Traffic Offender
‘I Screwed Up,’ He Admits; but Jurist Defends Other Conduct Challenged by CJP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross admitted yesterday that he acted improperly when he jailed a woman charged with a traffic offense who allegedly provided false information to the court.
“I accept responsibility,” he told a panel of special masters hearing misconduct charges brought by the Commission on Judicial Performance. “I realized [the day after Debra M. Fuentes went to jail] I screwed up.”
Ross spent most of the day on the witness stand on the first day of a hearing at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals building in Pasadena. The hearing, before a panel consisting of Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Judith L. Haller, Ventura Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O’Neill, and San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith, continues today and is expected to last the week.
Ross defended his conduct with respect to other charges explored by commission attorney Jack Coyle, who called the judge as the case’s first witness. But he admitted he had no defense to the charge involving Fuentes.
Fuentes appeared before Ross last year at the Metropolitan Courthouse on Hill Street for arraignment on two traffic citations issued in 1995 and 1996 and on a criminal charge of failing to appear, as to which she had posted bail.
Fuentes presented a “Wrong Defendant Declaration” indicating that at least one of the citations was issued to someone else. The declaration did not list a case number, but the commission alleged in its notice of charges against Ross that the 1995 citation listed Fuentes’ date of birth, and a height and weight consistent with hers, while the later citation was apparently issued to someone who was older, taller, and skinnier.
Ross, concluding that the declaration was false, ordered that Fuentes be charged with “false evidence” under Vehicle Code Sec. 16030(a), which actually makes it a misdemeanor to provide a peace officer or court clerk with false evidence of insurance.
He set bail and remanded the defendant into custody. Fuentes was released on bail two days later, and all charges were later dismissed.
Ross invaded the jurisdiction of the prosecutor by adding a new charge, and also “abused your authority and became embroiled,” the commission charged.
Ross said yesterday that he realized the day after the arraignment, while hearing another matter involving a similar issue, that he was “completely wrong” about the Fuentes matter.
“Knowing she had to spend two days in custody, I felt horrible,” he testified. “—I did everything in my power to rectify a terrible injustice,” he told the panel, saying he later learned that Fuentes teenage daughter was in the courtroom at the time.
Ex Parte Communication
On another matter, Ross said he believes he acted properly in a case where he is accused of having had an improper ex parte communication with a defendant in a drug case.
The judge explained that the woman, Lenore Carillo, failed to appear in court and failed to appear for a court-ordered drug assessment. But the defendant, who had a history of heroin abuse, later left a voice mail message asking for help, Ross said.
Acting out of concern for Carillo, who was pregnant at the time, Ross said, he called her back and told her to come to court and deal with the charges. That was the best alternative at the time, he said, because it was after 5 p.m. when he got her message and he could not reach the prosecutor or Carillo’s attorney at that hour.
His actions, he said, were consistent with the “spirit of Proposition 36,” the initiative guaranteeing defendants, such as Carillo, charged with simple drug possession an opportunity for rehabilitation and dismissal of their cases. In response to a question by Coyle, however, he acknowledged that court rules make no distinction between Proposition 36 cases and other cases with respect to the propriety of ex part communications.
Ross also defended his decision to order that Deputy Public Defender Lisa Gordon be removed from his courtroom after she consistently interrupted him during the sentencing of her client for a probation violation.
The commission charged that Ross “imposed sentence without affording due process and interfered with defendant’s right to counsel.” The judge, however, said the deputy public defender was out of line.
“Her tone and her behavior toward the court was unacceptable,” Ross said, saying he would have been justified in holding her in contempt but settled for “a time out.” Gordon, he said, is a “passionate advocate,” he said, who simply went too far in this particular instance.
Ross was similarly unapologetic for having referred to Gordon’s client as a “pathological liar” during that same hearing. “He had a continuing problem telling the truth,” the judge said.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company