The law of unintended consequences is that actions always have unanticipated effects.

Ms. Roberts, a homeless trans woman, was shaking. Her thin frame stood protectively over her upended shopping cart of belongings. It contained everything she owned in the world. Some people would call it trash, but to her it was her wardrobe, her pantry, and the place where she kept all items of sentimental value.

Now it lay scattered on the pavement, mixed with dirt and unsanitary debris.

Ms. Roberts stared at the ground and then looked up at the woman who had thrown her cart. Back-lit by the streetlamps, what Ms. Roberts saw was not just a woman, but a woman with a home. A woman with a stable job. A woman whom strangers looked in the eyes instead of averting their gaze out of repulsion. A woman. Full stop. One who didn’t have to fight for her gender identity every day of her life.

Fury boiled inside Ms. Roberts’ chest. She opened her mouth and the venom spewed out. “It’s taking everything I have not to put my hands on you.”

Ms. Roberts intended those words to convey her anger. What she didn’t anticipate is that those twelve words would lead to her arrest.

Ms. Mitchel, a local businesswoman, was the recipient of Roberts’ rage. All because she had tossed the filthy cart towards the alley, away from the front of the South LA indie film studio where she worked.

Mitchel threw her hands up in the air in a huff. “I just can’t have this,” she yelled.

It was around 9 pm, but late night shoots and acting classes frequently filled the sandblasted brick walls of the studio until well past 10 pm. The clientele was a mix of local dancers, up-and-coming filmmakers, and the occasional high profile musician. 

Mitchel was concerned that a homeless woman’s presence would disturb the artists, so she retreated inside and called the cops. The operator expressed little concern about Roberts’ presence outside the studio – the sidewalk was public property and it’s not illegal to loiter in California unless the behavior is paired with criminal intent. Undeterred, Mitchel escalated her outrage and informed the operator that Roberts was threatening her. Officers promptly arrived and arrested Roberts for the crime of “criminal threats.”

While Roberts sat handcuffed in the back of a cop car, Mitchel chatted with officers. She casually mentioned her concern that Roberts may have a gun and that she feared for her safety. But Mitchel’s demeanor was not one of terror. She gave coquettish smiles to the men in uniform as they chatted. Footage from an officer’s body cam showed her laughing.

It is unlikely that Ms. Mitchel knew that what she had done could result in Ms. Roberts serving a life sentence in prison.

The law of unintended consequences is that actions always have unanticipated effects. We are, after all, human and incapable of knowing the totality of the circumstances surrounding each decision we make.

The circumstances surrounding the incident were as follows:

1. Ms. Roberts already had a criminal record including two serious felony charges for burglary.

2. In California the crime of criminal threats is a wobbler, meaning that prosecutors can choose to charge it either as a felony or a misdemeanor. If it is charged as a felony, then the crime is considered a “serious” felony.

3. Under California’s Three Strike Law, serious or violent felonies are regarded as strikes. If a defendant is convicted of a felony and already has one strike (one previous serious felony) then they are to be sentenced to state prison for twice the term otherwise provided for the crime. If the defendant has two or more prior strikes then they face a mandatory prison sentence of twenty-five years to life.

Twenty-eight states have some form of the Three Strikes Law, but California’s is the subject of great controversy. That’s partially because in California, unlike many other jurisdictions, wobbler offenses like the charge against Roberts can qualify for application of the law.

It’s now September 11, 2019 and Ms. Roberts stands in court wearing a light blue county jail jumpsuit. Her cheeks are embellished with makeshift rogue. A hint of blue eye shadow shines on her lids. Roberts holds her chin high as she addresses the judge. Shoulders back. Lips pursed.

Roberts’ crime has been charged as a felony rather than a misdemeanor. It’s just one example of prosecutorial overreach, the ideological framework that defaults to the most serious charge possible. Stacked or inflated charges give the DA’s office more leverage when it comes to plea bargains, forcing defendants to choose between taking the “bargain” of pleading to a lesser crime or risking a trial in which they face the full penalties of the original charges. 

For now, no plea bargain has been accepted by Roberts, so proceeding forge ahead. Today is supposed to be Roberts’ preliminary hearing, but Deputy District Attorney Matt Bunnett asks for a continuance to reschedule the prelim for a later date. This is a common practice when either defense attorneys or prosecutors need more time to collect evidence or call witnesses. Generally a request for a continuance is met with a nod from the judge, a quick glance at the cluttered court calendar and an obligatory reading of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, after which they are nudged to wave those rights to allow the postponement.

Not today.

Judge Lynne Hobbs reads the facts of the case. She furrows her brow under her black-framed glasses. Her silver hoop earrings bob as she shakes her head. She looks confused.

It’s not a common facial expression in preliminary court. Most judges are so preoccupied with racing through the day’s lengthy docket that they become taskmasters. Boxes are checked, lawyers wrangled, and defendants often spend less than five minutes in the courtroom. Annoyance and diligence are the standard judicial mask. Confusion is the enemy of efficiency, bringing the clanging machinery of the judicial system to a screeching halt. But sometimes the machine breaks and the only way to fix it is to come to a full stop.

Hobbs incites a highly animated debate regarding the charges filed. No matter how she wraps her head around it she can’t see Roberts’ behavior as a serious threat to Mitchel’s life. “It’s not felonious behavior.” Her eyes restrain from rolling as she listens to Bunnett’s argument that the victim, Ms. Mitchel, felt her life was in danger. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that Roberts ever owned a gun, Bunnett harps on Mitchel’s fears that Roberts might shoot her. He punctuates his diatribe by harkening back to Roberts’ alleged statement. “‘It’s taking everything I have not to put my hands on you.’ That’s a criminal threat.”

Hobbs gives the defendant a knowing glance and cocks her head. 

“That’s a cultural expression,” Hobbs explains. “It’s urban.”

The word “urban” is tongue-in-cheek, a playful barb calling out the racial differences in court and in this case. 

Ms. Roberts is black.

So is Judge Hobbs.

Bunnett is not. 

Hobbs grants the public defender’s 17B motion, an act that reduces Roberts’ wobbler felony to a misdemeanor. Roberts pleads no contest to the reduced charge and is sentenced to 36 months summary probation and 180 days in county jail. 

The Three Strikes Law was enacted in 1994, when public outrage reached a breaking point over the murders of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds and 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Official ballot materials promoting the original “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law purported that the legislation was intended to “keep murders, rapists, and child molesters behind bars.”  But today, according to Stanford Law’s Three Strikes Project, more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are in prison for nonviolent crimes. In addition, the California Department of Corrections shows that the law disproportionately affects minority populations. Over 45% of the inmates serving life sentences due to the Three Strike Act are black.

The law of unintended consequences is that the actions always have unanticipated effects. But that doesn’t excuse our behavior and it doesn’t excuse us from correcting our mistakes after realizing what our actions have caused.


The defendant’s first name is not used in this article due to the fact that her legal (male-associated) name was used during proceedings. Ms. Roberts’ public defender did not respond to inquiries regarding Ms. Roberts’ preferred name. The victim’s first name is not used in this article because she was not present during court proceedings and her full name was not mentioned.


References:

-NPR 2 torn families show flip side of 3 Strikes Law

-California Courts: The Judicial Branch of California, “Three Strikes Sentencing Law”

-Stanford Law School, Three Strikes Project “Three Strikes Basics”

-California Innocence Project “Three Strikes Law”

-California Penal Code 459

-California Penal Code 422

-California Penal Code 17B