Friday, April 28, 2006
CJP Launches Misconduct Proceedings Against Monterey Jurist
Velasquez, Previously Censured, Faces Possible Removal From Office on New Charges
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday brought formal charges against Monterey Superior Court Judge Jose A. Velasquez that could end his 11-year judicial career.
The commission accused Velasquez, 47, with sentencing defendants to jail for probation violations with which they were not charged, increasing sentences in response to defendants’ questions or comments, improperly basing sentences on defendants’ answers to his questions about how it felt to commit the crime; pressuring defendants into pleading guilty, issuing bench warrants for defendants whose attorneys arrived late to court; making improper comments in court, including joking remarks about jail time; and allowing his young children to be in the bench area and in chambers during case discussions.
Velasquez, a judge since 1995, accepted censure by the commission in 1997 for offenses that included publicly accusing his presiding judge of racial bias based on how cases were assigned; creating an atmosphere of prejudice by announcing a standard set of sentences to be imposed in drunk driving cases, implying that mitigating circumstances would not be considered, and publicly accusing his fellow judges of issuing “slap on the wrist” sentences in such cases; hanging a crucifix on the wall behind his bench; and allowing his name and title to be used in connection with an ad supporting abortion rights.
In its notice made public yesterday, the commission cited eight cases in which misdemeanor defendants were found to be in violation of probation and sentenced to jail, even though the noticed proceeding before the court was not a probation violation hearing.
In each of the cases, the commission alleged, the defendant was before the judge without counsel, asking to postpone a surrender date, modify a condition of probation, or obtain an extension of time to attend required meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, or for review of compliance with probation conditions. In each instance, however, the judge found that the defendant was in willful violation of probation and ordered a jail sentence, the commission said.
In six cases, the commission said, Velasquez increased or threatened to penalize defendants for asking questions or making comments.
In one case, for example, when the judge told a defendant that she would receive 10 days in jail and a $750 fine for obstructing an officer, the defendant replied that she accepted probation on those terms but asked “is there a way you can make the time less?” to which Velasquez responded “I can make it more.”
In another instance, a defendant being arraigned on a charge of underage possession of alcohol was told that he could go to jail or to 30 AA meetings, but was not told he could plead not guilty. When he offered to attend the AA meetings but asked if the number could be reduced in light of his work schedule, the judge responded that he had “zero tolerance” and that if the defendant were to “keep talking that way,” the judge would take his license, the commission charged.
The commission also cited a case in which the judge found a defendant to have violated his probation by failing to install an ignition interlock device and to attend AA meetings, and told him he was going to be taken into custody for 20 days. When the defendant tried to offer information in his defense, the commission said, Velasquez “increased his jail time for the willful failure to comply to 30 days, then 60 days, then 75 days, and threatened to increase it to 120 days.”
The commission also charged Velasquez with improperly offering several defendants the option of pleading guilty at arraignment or going to AA meetings and having the charges dismissed, but not offering the option of a not-guilty plea. The judge also improperly told defendants that if they did not attend the AA meetings, they would go to jail, when in fact the only thing the court could have done was resume proceedings.
The judge also made improper remarks and cut off and threatened defendants in a number of other cases, the commission said. In one case, for example, the judge told a defendant charged with not paying child support that he was facing a year in jail if he did not pay $5,000 before his next court date, and the defendant asked if he could “say something,” Velasquez asked “Before you go to jail for the full year or after,” and told the defendant “I don’t need to hear stories” and instructed the defendant “don’t give me any attitude because I don’t have to put up with it.”
Velasquez is represented by San Francisco attorney James A. Murphy. His answer to the charges is due May 11.
Velasquez was elected to the old Monterey County Municipal Court in a 1995 special election ordered as part of a settlement of a Voting Rights Act suit. The plaintiffs in that case alleged that the county had discriminated against Hispanic voters by gradually consolidating a multiplicity of municipal and justice courts into a countywide court of limited jurisdiction.
As a result of the settlement, a predominantly Hispanic single-judge election district was created, and Velasquez won the seat by defeating Judge Lydia Villareal, who had been appointed to the court five months earlier as one one of the first Hispanics ever to sit on a Monterey County court. Velasquez became a Superior Court judge through unification in December 2000.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company