Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

More Than 50,000 Californians Can Get ‘Back on the Road’

Alameda County Superior Court reversed license suspensions for 54,000 people who were punished for their inability to pay fines.

More Than 50,000 Californians Can Get ‘Back on the Road’

Alameda County Superior Court reversed license suspensions for 54,000 people who were punished for their inability to pay fines.

54,000 Californians received some exciting and potentially life-changing news last week. The Alameda County Superior Court, which is in Oakland, reversed drivers’ license suspensions for thousands of people unable to drive because of unpaid traffic tickets and fines. The reversals are “the culmination of a years-long, sustained effort at the local and state levels,” Brandon Greene, staff attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), told In Justice Today by email.

Alameda is one of the first counties in California to lift license suspensions following the June passage of legislation that outlawed future suspensions for inability to pay, and following a court mandate to the Department of Motor Vehicles to restore licenses suspended before the bill passed. The sustained effort Greene refers to was predominantly led by Back on the Road, a coalition of advocacy organizations including EBCLC.

“The impact it will have on our clients is tremendous,” Brendon Woods, chief public defender of Alameda County told In Justice Today. “We see this continuous cycle of clients that come to court for what is really a crime of poverty.”

As Woods notes, license suspension rates in California are closely tied to poverty and race. Maps created by Back on the Road overlaying Census data with suspension data from the DMV illustrate the concentration of suspensions in some of the Bay Area’s poorest neighborhoods, many of which also have higher percentages of Black and Latino residents who are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system than their white neighbors. In San Francisco, for example, Black people comprise 6 percent of the population, but 46 percent of arrests for driving with a suspended license.

While the law prohibiting future license suspensions for inability to pay is a major win for advocates and many Alameda residents, Greene notes that the DMV didn’t initially interpret the law’s language as retroactive, meaning counties are not technically required to do what Alameda has done.

Under the pressure of litigation, the state’s DMV ultimately agreed to apply the law to those licenses suspended prior to the law’s passage, but it hasn’t committed to a timeline because of the “significant logistical and capacity impediments” imposed by the volume of suspension records, according to a legal agreement provided by the EBCLC. The DMV does intend “to take action as quickly as it possibly can,” according to the document.

While Alameda residents are now able to start the process of getting back their licenses, people in many other counties are still waiting. Without a license, Woods notes, many of the public defenders’ clients are unable to keep or maintain jobs.

“This victory is a step in the right direction, but there is still much to do,” says Greene.

'Progressive DA' Fights to Put Innocent Man Back in Prison

Office of East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore

'Progressive DA' Fights to Put Innocent Man Back in Prison

The evidence connecting Wilbert Jones to the 1974 rape for which he spent 46 years in prison was always weak. He was freed shortly before Thanksgiving due to the revelation that East Baton Rouge prosecutors hid evidence pointing to a different suspect entirely. But thanks to the efforts of East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, Jones now faces the prospect of returning to prison after less than a month of freedom.

Soon after Louisiana 19th Judicial District Judge Richard Anderson vacated Jones’ conviction, Moore promised to file an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court to seek “justice for the victim,” who died in 2008.

Sure enough, on Friday Moore’s office asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction, arguing that Judge Anderson had overreached by freeing Jones. Anderson found that “the State’s case against Jones was weak, at best,” and that the hidden, “highly favorable” evidence could have altered the trial’s outcome.

Moore claims to be a “progressive DA.” A 2013 Times-Picayune profile noted his conference table was stacked with iconic justice reform titles including The New Jim Crow and Don’t Shoot.

“For the guy whose job is prosecuting bad guys, Moore is hell-bent on finding a way to keep them out of courtrooms,” the Times-Picayune declared.

Moore’s record on keeping “bad guys” out of courtrooms is questionable, but he has certainly seemed hell-bent on keeping Jones, now 64 and in poor health, locked up for the rest of his life. District attorneys have enormous discretion in deciding which cases to pursue; Moore is not obligated to defend the conviction of his predecessors. But he has continued to fight in the face of mounting evidence of wrongdoing by his office.

Jones was granted a new evidentiary hearing in June. At that point, Moore could have simply declined to defend the conviction. The original case rested entirely on identification by the victim, a nurse at a Baton Rouge hospital. She later testified she had doubts that she had identified the right man, saying her attacker had a different voice and was taller than Jones.

Jones’ attorneys at the The Innocence Project introduced police reports indicating a serial rapist had committed nearly identical assaults in the same time period. The suspect in those cases matched the nurse’s description, and lived a block away from where he had left her after the assault. Yet prosecutors with the East Baton Rouge DA’s office, which Moore leads, withheld this information from Jones’ defense team for decades.

Moore’s latest appeal disputes that his office suppressed this evidence, arguing that the assaults were not similar enough to exonerate Jones. Furthermore, Moore asserts, the other rapes were publicized in the media at the time, so Jones’ defense attorneys should have investigated any possible connection themselves.

It’s not clear why Moore is continuing to fight a nearly 50-year-old case where the defendant has already served more than four decades behind bars. But Jones’ case sheds light on potentially major scandals at the East Baton Rouge DA’s office.

One of the prosecutors on Jones’ case had a history of withholding evidence favorable to the defense. In 1973, he was responsible for 11 overturned convictions. Evidence that could have been DNA-tested to exonerate Jones mysteriously disappeared after his conviction, leaving defense lawyers with only an empty envelope. The other suspect discovered by the Innocence Project was charged only with armed robbery in one of the rape cases, and was never prosecuted in the other, though his fingerprints were found in the victim’s car.

Many in Louisiana celebrated Wilbert Jones’ release as a rare correction of injustice. But while the holes in the case against Jones were big enough to free him, it’s unlikely they will prompt Moore to investigate his office’s failings. The ease with which Jones was wrongfully convicted and the effort it took to get him out demonstrates the destructive power of prosecutors’ win-at-all-costs approach. Jones may be home, but that power hasn’t budged.

Thanks to Burke Butler.

More in Explainers

New York’s Attorney General Just Indicted a District Attorney for Covering Up a Police Shooting of an Unarmed Black Man

Joel Abelove for District Attorney
Photo: Joel Abelove Facebook

New York’s Attorney General Just Indicted a District Attorney for Covering Up a Police Shooting of an Unarmed Black Man

A New York State grand jury indicted Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel E. Abelove on charges of official misconduct and perjury on Friday afternoon. The indictment stems from Abelove’s concealment of evidence about the shooting of an unarmed black man by a Troy police officer, and allegations that Abelove lied during a subsequent investigation. According to the indictment, Abelove repeatedly interfered with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s efforts to investigate the killing of 37-year-old Edson Thevenin, who was shot eight times by police sergeant Randall French following a traffic stop gone awry.

Schneiderman, under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 Executive Order, is required to investigate and, if warranted, criminally prosecute cases in which police have killed unarmed civilians in New York state. In the immediate aftermath of Thevenin’s death, Schneiderman’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit, requested that Abelove’s office provide copies of the investigative files about the shooting. Abelove, however, pointedly stymied Schneiderman’s investigation. Rather than provide the information to the Attorney General, Abelove presented a truncated version of the case to a grand jury that ultimately cleared French of any wrongdoing less than a week after the shooting.

“As we allege, District Attorney Abelove’s actions violated the law and undermined a criminal investigation,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The Governor’s Executive Order was designed to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system — yet the actions we detail today only served to further erode that confidence.”

Abelove’s efforts to shield a police officer from criminal liability for the shooting death of an unarmed civilian is exactly the type of conflict of interest that Cuomo’s Executive Order is meant to avoid.

On April 17, 2016, Thevenin was pulled over by French on suspicion of drunk driving. Following a short chase, where French claims Thevenin attempted to run him over, French shot Thevenin eight times through his windshield. By the next day, Troy’s mayor, its police chief, and its district attorney, Abelove, were in agreement about what happened: Thevenin had tried to run over French. Within four days, Thevenin brought the case before a grand jury, which decided not to indict French. However, just hours after the shooting, the state’s attorney general, under the 2015 Executive Order, had decided to investigate the shooting, asking Abelove to hand over investigative files relating to the case — and to hold off on convening a grand jury before the the AG decided whether to intervene or not.

Abelove ignored Schneiderman’s request and convened a grand jury anyway.

The first count of official misconduct against Abelove stems from allegations that he “knowingly withheld material evidence” from the grand jury. There are two potential pieces of information that should have been presented to the grand jury. First, two civilian witnesses came forward with accounts — including cell phone video — that directly undermined French’s justifications for the shooting. Abelove did not present either eyewitness account to the grand jury. Second, since Abelove convened the grand jury just four days after the shooting, the autopsy report on Thevenin had not been completed — denying the grand jury of evidence to potentially contradict French’s assertion that Thevenin was intoxicated.

Abelove’s handling of French’s own self-serving testimony led to the second count of official misconduct. Abelove compelled French to testify before the grand jury, but failed to require him to sign a waiver of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination or immunity from prosecution before doing so. In failing to secure the waiver, Abelove effectively — and, according to the indictment, knowingly — immunized French from any criminal prosecution by the AG’s office.

It is incredibly rare for someone connected to a possible crime who is testifying in front of a grand jury to not sign a waiver of immunity from prosecution, and often police officers who feel that their testimony would implicate themselves do not sign the waiver and also do not testify in front of a grand jury.

The grand jury, hearing testimony only from police officers, quickly cleared French. It is highly unusual for a grand jury determination in a police-involved killing to be made in New York State in under a week — for example, the grand jury looking into the Eric Garner killing took over four months to come to a decision. In 2015, Abelove’s office presented a case to a grand jury involving a shootout between police officers and a suspect, Thaddeus Faison, who was eventually killed by the officers. The Faison grand jury issued its ruling more than 75 days after the incident. To many observers, the speed with which Abelove rushed the process in the French case was no mistake.

Schneiderman promptly sued Abelove following the grand jury’s decision, claiming that Abelove had “flagrantly violated” Cuomo’s executive order. The AG demanded that Abelove hand over all files relating to the case, stop investigating the case, and “annul” the grand jury decision. Abelove agreed to hand over the files and stop his investigation, but refused to vacate the grand jury’s decision.

Then, in September, Schneiderman empanelled a grand jury to investigate whether Abelove’s conduct constituted a criminal offense. In October, Abelove invoked his right to appear before the grand jury. The third count of the indictment returned today charges that Abelove lied to the grand jurors when he tesitified that his office had previously allowed an officer investigated for shooting a civilian to testify without signing an immunity waiver.

Schneiderman’s grand jury, unlike Abelove’s, heard testimony from multiple witnesses who claim that French’s life was not in danger when he fired on Thevenin. The grand jury also heard from a former prosecutor in Abelove’s office, Vincent O’Neill, who was fired by Abelove just days after being contacted by officials from Schneiderman’s office about the investigation.

The grand jury’s indictment against Abelove is an extremely rare example of a sitting District Attorney being criminally prosecuted while still in office. Most recently, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota was federally indicted as part of a cover-up of a beating of a man in police custody, and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was found guilty of taking bribes while in office and sentenced to federal prison.

The two counts of official misconduct are misdemeanors, while the perjury charge is a Class D felony. Abelove faces a possible sentence of seven years in prison and a fine up to $5,000 if found guilty.

The looming criminal charges aside, the political fallout from the French case remains unclear. Earlier this year, following community outcry that he do so, Abelove recused himself from a case involving the shooting of a Troy man by a police officer. Abelove cited the “high caseload” of his office as the need for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

It is unclear if Abelove will remain District Attorney following the indictment. Under New York State law, the governor has the power to remove District Attorneys. Abelove, a Republican elected as the Rensselaer County District Attorney in 2014, faces re-election next year.

More in Podcasts