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About San Diego Criminal Law Center

San Diego Criminal Law Center was created to provide useful information for anyone charged with a crime in San Diego and throughout the state of California. Author and attorney Vikas Bajaj has over 16 years of criminal defense experience. If you have been charged with a crime or under investigation, read our articles for useful info that may help you during this difficult time.


If you have been arrested or charged with a crime in California you should not hesitate to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. Hiring an attorney will help to ensure that your legal rights are protected and that you are given the opportunity to defend yourself against any charges you may face. It is not only important to hire an attorney to represent you, but to hire the right attorney to represent you.

There are many factors that should be considered when you are choosing a criminal defense attorney. These can include area(s) of expertise, years in practice, and even geographic location. The attorneys at the San Diego Criminal Law Center have compiled a list of tips that can be helpful when searching for a good criminal defense attorney in California.

Search Online

The best way to begin your search for a California criminal defense attorney is to use a search engine such as Google or Yahoo. A simple search can yield thousands of results. You can narrow down your search by using certain keywords and phrases.

We suggest including your geographic location and crime for which you have been charged. For example, if you are arrested for robbery in San Diego, we would suggest doing a search for “San Diego criminal lawyer” or “San Diego robbery criminal defense attorney.”

Legal Directories

Legal directories can be a great resource for clients. These directories are similar to search engines, except that search results are limited to lawyers. Attorneys often list themselves on these legal directories to help connect them with future clients. Some popular legal directories – with both clients and attorneys – include Avvo, FindLaw, and Lawyers.com. Popular customer-review websites such as Yelp can also be a great place to start.

Avvo

Avvo can be a great resource if you are searching for a good criminal defense attorney in California. The website simply asks you to enter the type of lawyer you are interested in finding and your location. Hit “search” and you’ll be matched with attorneys in your area who focus in that particular area of law. Avvo will provide information about the attorney, ratings, reviews, and any disciplinary records that may exist. You can even compare different attorneys in your area.

FindLaw

FindLaw allows you to search by city, state, and/or legal issue. When you are matched with attorneys in your area you will be able to access their biography and contact information. There is no review or rating system, so it may be helpful to perform a cross-search for an attorney you may be interested in hiring on a different legal directory.

Lawyers.com

If you’re interested in learning about what other attorneys think about a particular California criminal defense attorney you may want to use Lawyers.com. Search results will match you with criminal defense attorneys in your area and give you access to biographies, contact information, reviews from other clients, and even reviews from other attorneys.

Yelp

Yelp is not technically a legal directory, but it has become a popular tool for connecting attorneys and clients. If you find a California criminal defense attorney through a Yelp search that you like, we suggest searching for that attorney in another directory. This will allow you to get as much information as possible and allow you to make a more informed decision.

Online Reviews

Many of your online searches for a good California criminal defense attorney may include reviews by written by former clients and/or other attorneys. These reviews can be incredibly helpful when you are trying to decide if an attorney is the right choice.

Take the time to look closely at attorney reviews. Consider how many times an attorney has been reviewed as well as their overall rating.

Most importantly, however, consider the content of the reviews. When clients take the time to write a review they are probably doing so for a good reason. They may have been extremely happy with their representation, or they may have had a poor experience and been disappointed in a result. Reading through the entirety of these reviews can help to provide valuable insight into how an attorney works and if they may be the right fit for you.

When hiring a criminal defense attorney in California you will want to make sure you choose someone you trust. Online reviews can help you decide whether a particular attorney may be someone you can confide in and trust.

California State Bar

Once you have narrowed down your search to a few California criminal defense attorneys, we suggest using the California State Bar website to look up each attorney. The California State Bar website will provide up-to-date and certified contact information and the attorney’s disciplinary record.

Questions You Should Ask During the Initial Consultation

California criminal defense attorneys generally offer a free consultation for prospective clients. This allows you to meet with multiple attorneys and conduct a search in-person. When you ask the right questions you can learn a lot about an attorney and whether they may be the right fit for you.

Questions that you should consider asking a California criminal defense attorney during your initial consultation include:

  • How many other cases like mine have you handled?
  • What were the results of those cases?
  • How many years have you been practicing law?
  • Where did you go to law school?
  • Do you practice any other areas of law?
  • How many cases have you taken to trial?
  • How many jury trials have you won?
  • Have you ever been disciplined by the California State Bar?
  • Have you ever received any awards as an attorney?
  • How much will you charge for your services?
  • Can you get the charges reduced or dropped, based on the details I’ve given you?

Preparing for the Initial Consultation

Some of the answers a California criminal defense attorney gives you during an initial consultation may only be helpful if you have a basic understanding of the charges you face. Before meeting with an attorney it is a good idea to do a little bit of research about California law and the crime(s) you have been charged with.

A simple google search can provide a lot of information. An even better place to start is the criminal defense attorney’s website. Most criminal defense attorneys have pages dedicated to certain “practice areas” and crimes. These pages can provide a lot of insight into the law, whether an attorney has experience handling certain cases, and how they may approach a case like yours.

Understanding the Fees

It is important to understand how a criminal defense attorney will calculate his or her legal fees. Some California criminal defense attorneys charge a flat rate per case and others may charge by the hour. Many attorneys will require you to pay a retainer fee before they begin to work on your case. There are many factors that can go into how an attorney calculates a legal fee. Here are some questions you may want to ask during your initial consultation:

  • Do you have a fee structure I can review?
  • Do you charge a flat rate per case or on an hourly basis?
  • What would I have to pay today to secure you as my California criminal defense attorney?
  • Will I be responsible for court costs?
  • What happens if the case becomes more complicated than you initially thought?

While the cost of an attorney may be a factor you want to consider when hiring an attorney, it should not be the only factor. Expensive legal fees do not necessarily mean that your attorney will be better than another attorney who charges less. The opposite is also true. Be sure to investigate how familiar an attorney is with the specific legal issue you need help resolving.

Personality

While you are not hiring an attorney to be your friend, you are hiring someone to handle a very sensitive and personal matter. You must comfortable with and trust the California criminal defense attorney you hire to defend you. Try to choose an attorney who is easy to speak with and understand. An initial consultation is a great way to determine if you and the attorney would be a good fit.

Have you been arrested or charged with a crime in California? If so, do not hesitate to contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at the San Diego Criminal Law Center for a free consultation. Our skilled attorneys would be happy to review your case, answer any questions you may have, and explain your legal options.

See Our Infographic on Finding a Good Criminal Defense Attorney in California

We created this infographic so that you can take it with you when you meet with attorneys. Please click on it to view full-size and print for future reference.

Penalties for Health Care Fraud in the United States

The United States spends more on healthcare per person than any other industrialized nation in the world. In 2015, the country spent more than $3.2 trillion on healthcare. When an industry generates so much capital the potential for abuse increases. Health care fraud is a rising problem in the United States. In fact, the FBI estimates that health care fraud costs the United States “tens of billions of dollars” each year. Health care fraud is considered a federal white collar crime. A person who is charged with a health care fraud can face serious criminal consequences.

White collar crime is often thought of as a victimless crime. This, however, is not true. White collar crime is a nonviolent, financial crime that can cause serious problems for its victims. When a country and its taxpayers suffer losses of nearly 80 billion dollars each year, it is hard to say that health care fraud is a victimless crime. Crimes of fraud may seem less harmful than violent crimes because the victim of the crime is out of sight. However, real people suffer can real consequences when white collar crimes are committed. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch has gone on record to say that “health care fraud is not an abstract violation or benign offense – it is a serious crime.” Perpetrators of health care fraud “seek to use public funds for private enrichment” at the expense of “real people” who are often in need of “significant medical care.”

Health care fraud is a general term that includes insurance fraud, pharmaceutical and drug fraud, and medical fraud. Health care fraud is, of course, a crime of fraud. What exactly makes an act fraudulent? Fraud is loosely defined as knowingly and willfully deceiving another for the purpose of financial or personal gain. Essentially, fraud is lying (either overtly or by omission) to achieve a financial or personal advantage.

Health care fraud is a federal offense. This means that the federal government will investigate and prosecute the crime for which you have been accused of committing. Federal crimes are often subject to harsher criminal penalties, including detainment in a federal prison.

Crimes of health care fraud can be prosecuted under 18 U.S. Code Section 1347. Under the federal criminal law, a person is guilty of health care fraud when they knowingly and willfully execute (or attempt to execute) a scheme to:

  1. Defraud any health care benefit program; or
  2. Obtain, by mean of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, any money or property owned by or under the control of any health care benefit program in connection with the delivery of or payment for health care benefits, items, or services.

As you can see, the crime of health care fraud is actually quite broad. The statute covers a wide range of possible acts. The statute can be applied to individuals, health care providers, and/or insurance companies. In 2016, the FBI’s Fraud Section executed the largest health care fraud takedown in the country’s history for a scheme that defrauded Medicare and Medicaid. Individuals charged with health care fraud included nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals.

Examples of acts that may be prosecuted under the federal health care fraud statute include:

  • Kickbacks
  • Submitting duplicate claims
  • Providing and billing for excessive services
  • Providing and billing for unnecessary services
  • Unbundling
  • Upcoding of services provided
  • False billing
  • Using another person’s health care coverage
  • Medicaid and Medicare fraud
  • Copying and pasting medical records, and
  • Improper referrals.

Actions taken to deceive a health care service provider or the payor of health care services (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) can be prosecuted as acts of health care fraud.

When the federal government stands to lose nearly $80 billion each year you can be certain that they will aggressively prosecute individuals and companies who are believed to have committed health care fraud. The Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to seek the most serious criminal charges and harshest penalties possible for federal crimes. A conviction for health care fraud carries the possibility of serious time in federal prison. Generally, health care fraud is punishable by up to 10 years in a federal prison. However, if a victim suffers serious bodily injury or dies as a result of the fraudulent act, the fraud may be punishable by 20 years to life in prison.

White collar crimes, including health care fraud, are taken very seriously by the federal government. The FBI and DOJ will not hesitate to bring federal charges against anyone who is believed to have participated in a fraudulent scheme. If you are accused of health care fraud, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the nuances and complexities of federal white collar crime laws.

About the Author: Attorney Gus Kostopoulos is a former prosecutor and owner of Kostopoulos Law Group

Reclassifying Antifa as a Criminal Gang in California

There is no denying that the United States is not particularly unified at this point in history. Social media gives each and every American a personal platform to express their (sometimes polarizing) political views and thoughts. Social media also provides Americans with the opportunity to connect with other like-minded individuals. When groups of people connect to fight for a cause the platform can become more powerful. In this age of unrest, we have seen many (new and old) politically-charged groups emerge. These groups have, in some cases, essentially gone to war with one another. When these groups clash in public – each trying to champion opposite causes – things can get ugly. Berkeley, California was recently in the headlines after a group of self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” staged a forceful counter-protest at a conservative pro-Trump event.  

This group, known as Antifa, was described by police as violent and “militia-like.” Antifa is relatively new and appears to have emerged after the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally that shook the country earlier this summer. Antifa has reportedly not been a particularly peaceful group.  Rather, members carry weapons and protest in manners that are eerily reminiscent of those employed by the white supremacist groups that they stand against. Rather than staging powerful nonviolent protests, Antifa members employ violence and leave a path of destruction in their wake. These violent protests have caused California lawmakers to call for Antifa to be categorized as a criminal street gang.

California Penal Code Section 186.22(f) defines a “criminal street gang”  as “any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons” that has a “common name or common identifying sign or symbol” whose primary activity is a specified criminal act in which members individually or collectively engage and establish “a pattern of criminal gang activity.” Essentially, a criminal street gang is a group of at least three people who have adopted a name or symbol that routinely engage in criminal acts.

Classifying Antifa as a criminal street gang in California would significantly heighten the penalties associated with political riots. As it currently stands, members of Antifa who are arrested during a protest are subject to the laws and penalties that apply to all private citizens. They are not currently classified as a special group. So, a member of a counter-protest could be arrested and charged with inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, or refusal to disperse. These crimes are generally misdemeanors and carry relatively light criminal sentences. Most counter-protesters charged with one of these crimes would likely be sentenced to probation, community service, and/or be required to pay fines of up to $1,000.

If the Antifa group were to be classified as a criminal street gang, however, the members (if arrested) would be subject to aggravated sentencing because of their association with the group. At the very least, Antifa members charged under California Penal Code 186.22 PC could face up to three years in prison for their involvement in an Antifa counter-protest. The penalty, of course, would depend on the underlying criminal act. Penal Code 186.22 includes penalties for gang-related activity including assault with a deadly weapon, possessing or discharging a firearm, looting, mayhem, and criminal threats. Given the violent nature of Antifa counter-protests – and many other political protests staged by alt-right and white supremacist groups – it would not be difficult for prosecutors to charge group members with gang-related crimes.

As tensions grow between groups who stand on polar opposite sides of very politically charged issues, it will be interesting to see if any are formally classified as criminal street gangs. This classification could potentially act as a deterrent to engaging in violent protests. However, classifying one politically-related group as a criminal street gang, and not classifying another as the same could backfire. Alternatively, the California legislature may want to think about creating a new classification for these fairly recent and unique political protester groups. It may be wise to create a blanket classification that will deter violent protest, foster nonviolent protest, and apply equally to any political viewpoint. Either way, criminal defense attorneys in the area will likely face new challenges as their clients face aggravated charges for participating in political rallies. If you’re facing criminal charges, visit our guide on how to find a good criminal defense attorney in California.

Restraining Orders and Language Barriers in the Courtroom

The importance of a translator should never be underestimated. In a state like California where more than 8 million cases are heard each year and more than 220 languages are spoken, court-appointed translators can be crucial to both criminal and civil legal proceedings. If defendants in California court proceedings are not able to understand the charges, allegations, or proceedings then they cannot effectively defend themselves. Court-appointed interpreters are employed to ensure that defendants – in both criminal and civil proceedings – understand what is going on. California has initiated a “language access plan” which aims to ensure that interpreters are available in all cases involving non-English speaking parties. The plan focuses on criminal and high-priority civil cases. This includes hearings where restraining orders are requested and/or issued.

Why does California think it is important to ensure that parties affected by a restraining order have access to an interpreter? The answer is likely two-fold. First, a restraining order is essentially useless if the subject of the order doesn’t know what they are legally prohibited from doing. Second, a restraining order can only be violated if the subject (a) has knowledge of the order, (b) has been afforded the opportunity to learn about the contents of the order, and (c) intentionally violates the terms. If a legal hearing is conducted entirely in English – when the subject of the restraining order only speaks and understands Spanish or Chinese – it may be difficult to hold that person criminally responsible for any violations of the restraining order.

How does a person obtain the required “knowledge” of a restraining order issued against them? California law says that a person will be considered to have knowledge if one of three things happens:

  1. You are personally present at the court hearing where the restraining order is issued against you;
  2. You are personally served by first-class mail with a copy of the restraining order; or
  3. You are personally notified by a law enforcement officer.

Years ago, civil proceedings in California could be conducted without the assistance of a language interpreter. However, California law now requires that interpreters be made available in any legal proceeding. This new requirement helps to ensure that the “knowledge” components of a restraining order are satisfied. Before this requirement, a subject of a restraining order could potentially argue that he or she lacked the required knowledge because they were not given the option to have an interpreter present. This argument would be much more difficult today. Most courts will ask the potential subject of a restraining order – if they are present at the hearing – if they require the assistance of a language interpreter. So, if a person is present at the hearing where the restraining order is issued, he or she will be considered to have knowledge. Failure of communication that is based on language may no longer be an obstacle to having knowledge.

What happens if the subject of a restraining order is not present at the hearing in which they restraining order is issued? It may be easier to work around any language barriers that exist. This is because the order must be issued in writing and personally served to the subject. The order can easily be translated into a language known to be spoken by the subject of the order. If, for example, you only speak French the court can ensure that the order is properly and accurately translated into the French language before it is served. Alternatively, the court can make sure that prominent contact information for a translator is included in the service.

Knowledge of a restraining order – and its contents – is incredibly important. Without proof of knowledge, a victim of a restraining order may not have any legal recourse for violations of an order of protection. Punishments for restraining orders can only be imposed if a subject intentionally violates the terms of the order. Language barriers can pose a threat to satisfying these legal elements. As California imposes additional requirements for interpretive services in all of its courtrooms this threat is reduced.

California concedes that it will likely never have enough full-time interpreters to be present at each and every legal proceeding in the state. When more than 220 languages spoken and more than eight million cases are heard in a given year, it is nearly impossible to reach each and every proceeding. However, California will continue to focus its interpretive services to sensitive and critical legal proceedings. In those cases where California fails to provide access to an interpreter, you should not be held responsible for any inadvertent violations of a restraining order. Find a good criminal defense attorney if you need more assistance.

In early August, federal agents arrested a San Diego man for his involvement in a drug smuggling operation. What makes this case special? The man was a part of San Diego’s first confirmed case of using a drone to transport drugs across the border into the city. Technology has officially changed the way drug smuggling and trafficking operations work. Drugs can now be brought across the border into San Diego and other cities by an unmanned drone under the cover of darkness. This particular operation attempted to bring 13 pounds of heroin worth more than $46,000 to the streets of San Diego.

Will the use of this new technology reduce a person’s criminal liability for transporting illegal drugs? Probably not, at least for the time being. Federal and California state drug laws are written to be fairly broad. Broadly written laws allow prosecutors to charge criminal offenses for a wide range of behaviors and actions. In this case, the San Diego drone drug smuggler was arrested and charged with the federal crime of Importing a Controlled Substance. The man could also face California state criminal charges. If he were charged with a crime in California it would likely be for Sale or Transport of a Controlled Substance.

Importing a Controlled Substance, defined in United States Code Section 952, makes it a crime to import any controlled substance (as listed in the statute) into the United States for unlawful purposes. Heroin is explicitly listed as one of the prohibited controlled substances. At first glance, it may seem as though “import” is a vague term. Most laws define the terms that are used, and this law is no different. Import, for the purposes of this law, means to bring in or introduce illegal drugs into the United States. The man in the San Diego drone smuggling case retrieved 13 pounds of heroin from a drone that had flown across the border. He then moved those drugs to a different location so that they could be picked up by another party. Even though he did not physically move the drugs across the border himself he did assist in the act. Removing the drugs from the drone is probably enough to establish that he “introduced” drugs into the country in violation of the law.

Sale or Transport of a Controlled Substance, defined in California Health & Safety Code Section 11352, makes it a crime to sell, furnish, administer, transport, or import certain illegal drugs – including heroin – into the state of California with the intent to sell them (or give them away). The broadly written statute allows prosecutors to charge this crime for a wide range of behaviors related to moving illegal drugs. A conviction under the California law does not require that the drugs cross a border. Instead, the California law criminalizes the movement of illegal drugs from one location to another. When the San Diego man moved the heroin from the drone to another location to pass them off to another person, he violated the law. Prosecutors will have to prove that he intended to sell the drugs, give them away, or make a profit by handing them off to the next person in the smuggling operation.

California and federal drug laws are written broadly so that they can be applicable to a wide range of criminal behaviors. For the time being, these laws should be able to keep up with changes in technology. However, it will be important to understand when changes in the law may limit criminal liability because of technology. Prosecutors must establish that a person charged with a crime is guilty of all of the crime’s essential elements. Technology could soon make it unnecessary for individuals to engage in certain behaviors that are currently considered essential elements. In those situations, an experienced California criminal defense attorney will jump at the chance to argue that a prosecutor cannot make his or her case.

Last week, an off-duty police deputy and an innocent bystander were shot by an unknown assailant near Petco Park in downtown San Diego. The assailant reportedly approached the deputy, who was with a group of other off-duty law enforcement officers, while displaying a firearm. A confrontation between the two men turned into a struggle. The firearm was discharged four times – hitting the off-duty deputy in the shoulder three times and an innocent bystander in the arm once. None of the injuries were life-threatening. Police have not released information about why the assailant to approached the off-duty deputy or if the two men knew each other. The gunman remains at-large and the shooting is under investigation.

Regardless of the reasons for the confrontation and struggle, the assailant will face criminal consequences for shooting an off-duty deputy. The severity of the charges he faces, however, may depend on those reasons. Given the details provided in the news report, the assailant could potentially be charged with assault with a deadly weapon, attempted robbery, or even attempted murder.

In California, it is a crime to use a firearm to commit an assault or battery. An assault is the attempt and present ability to commit a violent act against another person using force that is likely to cause great bodily injury to another person. When a firearm is used to commit that assault, the charges may be aggravated to assault with a deadly weapon. Pointing and/or discharging a gun at another person is generally enough to aggravate a charge of simple assault. While the victim does not have to be harmed for an assault to occur, the fact that the victim does suffer great bodily harm can be used as evidence of the crime.

Assault with a deadly weapon is a wobbler in California, which means that the crime can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the San Diego gunman is charged with assault with a firearm the severity of the charge will depend on the circumstances of the crime and his criminal history. Misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon is punishable by summary probation, 6 months to 1 year in jail, and/or fines of up to $1,000. Felony assault with a deadly weapon is punishable by formal probation, 2-4 years in California state prison, and/or fines of up to $10,000.

Crimes committed against law enforcement officers who are engaged in their official duties can face more severe penalties. However, since the deputy was off-duty at the time of the shooting it is unlikely that the gunman in this instance will face aggravated charges for assaulting a peace officer. A conviction will, however, count as a “strike” for the purposes of California’s Three Strikes Law.

It is also a crime to commit a robbery or attempt to commit a robbery. The details about why the gunman approached the off-duty deputy are unclear. However, the fact that the altercation took place around 1 o’clock in the morning may indicate that the gunman intended to rob the off-duty deputy. In California, a robbery occurs when you take the personal property of another person through the use of force or threat of force. The charge is aggravated if a firearm is used. If the gunman in this case was unsuccessful in taking any of the deputy’s property he could still face charges for attempted armed robbery and/or assault with a firearm.

When he is caught, the gunman in the late-night Petco Park shooting will face criminal consequences for his actions. The severity of those consequences, however, will depend on why he approached the off-duty deputy and what he intended to do. If the gunman had, at any point, had the intent to kill the deputy during the struggle, he could also face charges of attempted murder. Regardless of which crimes he is eventually charged, it is unlikely that he will escape this situation without spending a few years behind bars. It will be important for him to hire a skilled San Diego criminal defense attorney to ensure that his legal rights are protected and that he is given the opportunity to defend himself against any charges he may face.