Two white lawyers on the verge of old age sit in a courtroom waiting for their cases to be called. Both are representing young men who got into tussles with the law. One of the attorneys reads the paper. His finely pressed sleeve falls to reveal a gold watch. The other fumbles with folders in a fine leather briefcase.
The newspaper man folds the paper in his lap. A thought just struck him. “You know, I feel for these kids. I did tons of stupid shit when I was young.”
The briefcase man plunks his case on the ground. He smirks, “Only difference between us and them is that we never got caught.”
It’s a late Friday night in early August. The radio blasts as Jonathan Mendez drives his white Honda Civic on the cracked pavement of East LA. Mendez is 19 — he goes to college at Cal State LA — but he’s got a round face and big glasses that make him appear years younger. No matter how much swagger he adds to his step, he still looks more like a kid who belongs in a spelling bee than a bro who could throw a lit house party. His cell phone buzzes. He answers. The caller is Mendez’s friend and his friend is psyched “Hey! I came up on some shit. Help me pick it up.”
The “shit” happens to be two cases of beer that Jonathan’s friend has stolen from a garage.
In California, burglary is defined as entering a commercial or residential building or room with the intent to commit a felony or theft once inside. In other words, Mendez’s friend was committing burglary.
In California, aiding and abetting occurs when a person knowingly helps someone else commit a crime. The act is seen as being criminally complicit, and prosecutors may charge you for the same crime as the principal offender. In other words, Mendez was about to do some very stupid shit.
The owner of the garage happened to be Maria Flores, who had bought the libations for her husband’s upcoming birthday party. Maria Flores happened to be driving home from a long day of work in her big, white van. That van happened to be two cars behind Jonathan Mendez’s Honda Civic.
Mendez drove to Flores’ Spanish stucco home and parked in the driveway. Seconds later, Flores drove past her house. She saw the Honda Civic, a bearded young man holding two cases of beer, and her garage door jammed open.
Flores parked her van and slammed the door behind her. Just over five feet tall and heading into her sixties, Flores was small. But she was pissed. The bearded young man took one look at her, dropped the case of beer, and hid behind some cars by the garage. Flores turned her attention to the Honda Civic, where Mendez was frozen in the driver’s seat. She looked him square in the eyes and said, “You took my beers.” Mendez blubbered. What beers? What garage? I don’t know anything! While Mendez wrung his now sweating palms, his bearded friend ran off into the darkness, leaving Mendez to fend for himself. Flores’s husband blocked Mendez’s Honda Civic in the driveway. Mendez was caught red-handed without ever touching the stolen goods. A sick-churning panic sunk in.
The police were called and Mendez was promptly arrested. The officers took him back to the station where he was Mirandized. Mendez — perhaps holding out hope that this all wasn’t a big deal — waived his right to a lawyer and signed a statement admitting his involvement in the crime of stealing the beers.
It’s September 18th and Mendez is at his preliminary hearing for doing the aforementioned stupid shit and subsequently getting caught for it.
Mendez sits at the counsel’s table, hands clasped tightly in his lap. He wears a short-sleeved collared shirt — navy blue with white spots. The fabric has the sharp creases of a new purchase. I find myself wondering if Mendez bought the shirt himself or if his family helped. The bigger question is: who paid the fine for his bond? After Mendez was arrested, his bail was set at $20,000. Bail Boys Bail Bonds put up that money for Mendez’ release. That means that someone paid them a fee — in California, a bail bond typically costs 10% of the total bail so that fee was probably around $2,000. That’s some truly expensive stupid shit.
More importantly, in criminal court the shit is no longer just stupid: it’s a felony.
Burglary is a wobbler, which means it can be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor. As mentioned in previous articles that you can read here and here, prosecutors often default to the higher charge in order to gain more leverage in plea bargains. That’s why Mendez is currently staring down the barrel of one count of felony burglary and one count of felony for accessory after the fact, a crime he committed by lying to the police in order to cover for his friend. If convicted, his dumb adolescent behavior could fracture his entire life. He faces up to three years in county jail and a $10,000 fine, not to mention the burden of a felony on his permanent record.
Mendez keeps his eyes on the table in front of him. When the arresting officer testifies, Mendez hunches his shoulders and looks at the floor. Unlike many other defendants, he has no family present. No one to look back at for a reassuring glance. No one to hold their breath while the judge makes a ruling. No one who will walk him out of the courtroom when the proceedings are done.
No one except for Maria Flores.
It turns out that Flores recognized the boy in the white Honda Civic. He had bought candy at her corner store since he was a child and she had watched him grow into a young man. This was a child from her community and one with a promising future. When Flores called the cops that night it was because of the bearded young man, not because of Mendez, but he got caught in the web anyways.
She didn’t want the boy to be punished, but the Deputy DA ignored her request. Instead, Mendez’s familiarity with Flores was used against him in court as evidence of his moral decrepitude. The fact that he stole from an older couple that he knew showed a “lack of integrity” that merited the felony charges. Fortunately for Mendez, Judge Lynne Hobbs was presiding, a woman who is thorough and thoughtful in her rulings. When Mendez’s defense attorney made a motion to reduce the charges to misdemeanors she granted it in light of the circumstances.
It’s a positive turn for Mendez, but one that still leaves him held to answer for two misdemeanors, which could result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
All for doing some stupid shit.