Governor Signs DA-Sponsored Bills

SB 1042 Elevates Sex and Labor Trafficking to More Serious Crimes

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan today said her office is supporting Senate Bill 1042 which would change California law to make human trafficking a “violent” felony crime. SB 1042 will also designate human trafficking as a “strike” offense. The bill is authored by State Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and was introduced into the California legislature last week.

“This legislation ensures traffickers are sentenced to prison, establishes increased penalties for repeat offenders, and prevents traffickers from receiving early parole,” said DA Stephan. “We continue to attack human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of young people, and labor trafficking on several fronts. This change to the law will give prosecutors across the state another tool that has more serious consequences for those who would prey on some of the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Under current California law, human trafficking is defined as a “non-serious” and “non-violent” crime, falling into the same category as other low-level felony crimes such as vandalism, theft and drug sales.

Southern California has the notorious distinction of being one of the nation’s top destinations for human trafficking. The state consistently ranks number one in the nation in the number of human trafficking cases reported to the national human trafficking hotline.

By definition, human trafficking charges apply to those who are sexually exploiting or attempting to sexually exploit children and those who use force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace or an unlawful threat of injury on an adult that results in the substantial and sustained deprivation of the adult victim’s liberty for the purposes of obtaining forced labor, services, or sexual exploitation.

Both state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the California Attorney General, define human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.”  This label is well-deserved as traffickers control every aspect of a victim’s life.  Traffickers are exploiters of the worst kind, frequently targeting the most vulnerable and abused of society for their own financial and sexual exploitation.  Women, children, and minorities are particularly vulnerable for exploitation, as are members of the LBTQ community.

Last week, the DA announced a new outreach campaign aimed at raising awareness that boys are often victims of human trafficking. The month-long campaign’s goal is to broaden the public perception of who is vulnerable to being sexually trafficked. Officials hope that bringing attention to this issue will improve screening, identification, and services for boys who are victims of sex trafficking. The campaign is appearing on billboards, bus transit posters, on social media and in public service announcements on radio.

A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice estimated that as many as 50% of the commercially sexually exploited children in the United States are boys.

The bill will be heard next in the State Senate’s Public Safety Committee.

New Outreach Campaign Raises Awareness About the Sex Trafficking of Boys

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan and Health and Human Services Director Nick Macchione today announced a new outreach campaign aimed at raising awareness about boys who become victims of human trafficking. The month-long campaign’s goal is to broaden the public perception of who is vulnerable to being sexually trafficked. Officials hope that bringing attention to this issue will improve screening, identification, and services for boys who are victims of sex trafficking. The campaign will appear on billboards, bus transit posters, on social media and in public service announcements on radio.

“To truly address the needs of all sex trafficking survivors, we must recognize the reality that the trafficking of boys is more common than the public may realize,” said DA Stephan. “We have a responsibility to protect all children who are being trafficked. This latest outreach is an extension of our work to increase awareness, improve identification and reporting, and develop specialty services for survivors who are boys.”

While state and local data doesn’t provide good statistics about the trafficking of boys, national studies demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice estimated that as many as 50% of the commercially sexually exploited children in the United States are boys. In 2013, a study found that the commercial sexual exploitation of boys is vastly under reported.

“The commercial sexual exploitation of children in our region is a hidden crisis and one we are proud to raise up and combat in partnership with the District Attorney’s office,” said Nick Macchione, Director of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. “Girls are well-known targets, but so are an astonishing number of boys and LGBTQ+ youth. All human trafficking is despicable, and we look forward to this creative campaign saving young boys from tragedy.”

The campaign is being organized by the District Attorney’s Office, Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), and Child Welfare Services. The artwork for the campaign was produced by anti-trafficking activist Genice Jacobs with artist Myriam Obin. A new web page, www.ProtectSanDiegoKids.org provides information and resources.

The outreach coincides with a collaborative human trafficking summit being held on March 4 in partnership with Point Loma Nazarene University, Rotary District 5340, the District Attorney’s Office and the San Diego County Office of Education. The event’s keynote speaker is Nathan Earl, an anti-trafficking pioneer who leverages more than 20 years of lived and professional experience to help organizations and communities prevent violence against boys and male-identifying individuals.

Visit www.ProtectSanDiegoKids.org for more information. For help for you or someone you love, call 800-344-6000 to reach caring, trained staff who can help.

DA & Sheriff Highlight New Success Shutting Down Illegal Pot Dispensaries

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan and San Diego County Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez today announced that law enforcement’s renewed, coordinated efforts to shut down illegal marijuana dispensaries has resulted in widespread success in East County where a bulk of the illegal dispensaries were concentrated. In 2019, there were as many as 30 dispensaries illegally operating at any given time in east county, for example. Now, it’s hard to find even one in operation. Chula Vista previously had a number of illegal dispensaries that were eliminated in 2020 using a similar approach.

“Shutting down unregulated illegal marijuana dispensaries required a new level of innovation and collaboration rather than playing a game of ‘whack a mole’ with dispensaries being shut down one day but popping up elsewhere a few days later,” said DA Stephan. “Instead of working mostly in silos, we took a new approach since 2019 that leveraged expertise from a variety of law enforcement, prosecution and code compliance agencies. Now, we are delivering proven success and making sure all neighborhoods, rich and poor, are safe from the criminal industry of illegal dispensaries and associated crime.”

In 2019, the DA and Sheriff coordinated a new, multi-agency effort spanning the entire county that includes the San Diego Police Department, Chula Vista Police Department, Homeland Security Investigations, California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, and San Diego County Code Compliance Division and Sheriff and DA. The group focused on South Bay initially and with Chula Vista Police Department Chief Roxanna Kennedy’s commitment to the task force was able to bring the number of illegal dispensaries operating in and around Chula Vista to zero.

Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez said, “This is a win-win for communities plagued by these unregulated shops and businesses that allow youth access and fosters a wild west atmosphere where armed robberies, extortion, and homicides have occurred.”

In 2020, then Assistant Sheriff Martinez created a Marijuana Enforcement Team to support and supplement the regional coordinated effort. In early 2021, with the support of Supervisor Joel Anderson and Chair Nathan Fletcher, this team was fully funded by the Board of Supervisors. It continues today and vigilantly pursues enforcement when new shops open.

Illegal, unregulated dispensaries and organized crime groups behind them make millions of dollars while paying nothing in taxes. They sell unregulated and untested product that may contain toxic carcinogens. Many edible products are packaged as gummies that children can mistake as candy. Residents have also strongly complained about dangerous traffic conditions near residential areas where these illegal narcotics dispensaries often set up shop.

In August of last year, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a proposal brought forward by Supervisor Joel Anderson to increase law enforcement of illegal marijuana shops in unincorporated areas and speed up the receivership process, allowing the county to take control of properties whose owners have repeatedly violated the law by illegally selling cannabis. District 2 had received the bulk of citizen complaints from unincorporated areas of East County.

“These illegal drug storefronts would pop up near our schools and churches, which made East County residents feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods,” Supervisor Joel Anderson shared. “One of my priorities as the County Supervisor who represents a large portion of the unincorporated County has been to ensure that the DA and Sheriff’s Department are equipped with the tools, resources, and staff power needed to put these criminals away so they can’t reopen another illegal operation. I am ecstatic to see our efforts paying off and can’t thank our Law Enforcement leaders enough for their dedicated work on this issue.”

Safe, regulated and legal cannabis retail, cultivation and manufacturing will soon be allowed in unincorporated area communities under a new policy passed in January of 2021 by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Licensed dispensaries in unincorporated areas will provide equitable opportunities for economic prosperity and good paying jobs, and establish safeguards to ensure cannabis is safe, regulated and legal. Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher says illegal shops threaten the economic prosperity of honest business owners.

“We will not allow illegal cannabis shops to operate in our communities,” Chair Fletcher said. “The County and law enforcement have a strategy to shut down unlicensed shops and our aggressive action is showing real and tangible progress.”

Officials say the increased enforcement has led to increased prosecutions. Since March 2019, The District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 70 defendants related to operating illegal dispensaries. Felony charges are being filed against the most culpable individuals, including business owners and managers, repeat offenders, and those with serious criminal histories. To date, an unprecedented 19 defendants have pleaded guilty to felony offenses involving operating drug buildings, possession of marijuana for sale, possessing narcotics while armed with a firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and conspiracy. Thirteen lower-level defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offenses related to aiding and abetting illegal dispensary operations. Many more cases are still pending due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials cautioned that while there has been large success shutting down illegal brick and mortar dispensaries, dealers are moving to illegal mobile delivery businesses, which remains an ongoing issue that continues to be investigated.

Anyone aware of ongoing illegal dispensaries or delivery services should contact the local police department where the business is located or where the crime occurred. Anyone providing tips can remain anonymous.

DA Announces $3.2 Million Settlement of Hazardous Waste Case Against Firestone Complete Auto Care

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that Firestone Complete Auto Care has agreed to a more than $3 million settlement with her office and 28 other prosecutors in an environmental protection case that alleged the company unlawfully disposed of hazardous waste at Firestone service centers across California, including in San Diego County.

On February 4, a judge ordered $2.87 million in civil penalties to be paid by Bridgestone Retail Operations, LLC, the company that does business as Firestone Complete Auto Care at more than 150 locations in California. The civil complaint, filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, alleged that the automotive repair company did not properly manage hazardous waste, such as solvents, automotive fluids, aerosols, batteries, and electronic devices. The settlement also resolves allegations that the company failed to redact or shred confidential customer information before throwing the paperwork in the trash.

“Protecting our community from hazardous waste and holding companies accountable when they flaunt environmental laws is a priority for our Environmental Protection Unit,” DA Stephan said. “We will continue to work with our fellow prosecutors around the state to enforce these laws.”

In addition to paying civil penalties, Firestone was ordered to pay $350,000 for the cost of the investigation and $725,000 in agreed-upon compliance and training expenditures. Firestone cooperated with prosecutors during the investigation and took steps to improve its compliance with the environmental and consumer protection violations brought to its attention. The San Diego District Attorney’s Office will receive about $227,000 from the judgment.

The investigation began in 2016 when Santa Clara County and Alameda County DA investigators conducted unannounced inspections of Firestone trash containers, revealing non-empty containers of hazardous waste and pages of customer records. Additional inspections in those counties and in San Diego, San Bernardino, and Orange counties took place over the next three years.

The Firestone judgment is the latest in a series of environmental civil enforcement actions successfully brought by California prosecutors against large automotive service providers and retailers. The prior judgments, which included civil penalties and injunctions, were against Service King (2019, $2.3 million), Pep Boys (2019, $3.7 million), AutoZone (2019, $11 million), AutoNation (2018, $3.3 million), and O’Reilly Auto Parts (2016, $9.8 million).

DA Charges Former County Employee with Profiting Off His Wife’s County Contracts

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that criminal charges have been filed against Rolf Bishop, 73, the former Chief Deputy for information systems at the San Diego County Assessors/Recorder/County Clerk’s (ARCC) Office. Bishop was formally charged today with one felony count of violating Government Code Section 1090, which prohibits a county employee from being financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity.

Prosecutors allege that while Bishop was working in his capacity as Chief Information Officer, from March of 2017 to January of 2021, he recommended that a contractor hire his wife’s company to do work for the County. He subsequently approved invoices related to her work and the work of her employees on ARCC projects. Investigators say the defendant and his wife may have personally profited by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Exact accounting details are expected to become public during the pendency of the criminal case.

“The defendant and anyone working for the government has a duty to the public to not violate the public’s trust by using their position to unlawfully pad their own pockets,” DA Stephan said. “It’s critical that public corruption at all levels of government be investigated and prosecuted when the evidence meets the high burden of proof under the law.”

This case was referred to the District Attorney by the San Diego County’s Office of Ethics Compliance and is being prosecuted by the DA’s Special Operations Division, which investigates cases involving misuse of public funds, political corruption, hate crimes, and criminal misconduct of government officials, including peace officers and other public employees.

Bishop was arraigned in San Diego Superior Court and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces a fine and up to three years in prison. Bishop is no longer employed with the County of San Diego. A preliminary hearing in this case has been set for May 10.

District Attorney Charges Man for Firing Gun During Protest at Mayor Gloria’s Home

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan filed felony charges today against a man who clashed with protesters near San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s home and fired a gun near the crowd last year. Lonnie James Crawford, 37, was arraigned today and charged with discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner and unlawful possession of a firearm and a controlled substance. If convicted on both charges, Crawford faces up to four years, eight months in prison.

The charges stem from an incident on the evening of August 30 last year, when a group of people gathered outside of Mayor Gloria’s home to protest. Crawford drove his truck through the crowd of protesters and had a verbal altercation with them. He then entered a nearby apartment building and came out a short time later, firing at least one shot into the air. No one was hit by gunfire and no one was injured.

“These felony charges reflect the seriousness of the defendant’s actions and the danger he posed to the protesters who were clearly victimized by his actions,” said DA Stephan. “I want to be clear that everyone’s right to protest peacefully must be safeguarded and anyone who harms that right through illegal conduct will face consequences.”

The DA reminded the public that victims of crime can contact the office’s Victim Services Division for support and assistance.

The DA’s Office has filed criminal charges in several protest related cases, including Antifa members for criminal actions on an organized protest in Pacific Beach and for the Imperial Beach assault of two men participating in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

Crawford pleaded not guilty at arraignment today and is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on April 28.

DA Issues COVID Test and Price Gouging Warning Amid Omicron Surge

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan warned the public today to steer clear of unapproved at-home COVID-19 tests as people become increasingly desperate to get tested for the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Scammers are always waiting for their next opportunity to take financial advantage of unsuspecting consumers and the shortage of COVID-19 tests is no different.

“Before you click the add-to-cart button on that website claiming to sell legitimate self-testing kits, know how to spot red flags so you don’t become a different kind of COVID-19 statistic,” DA Stephan said.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a list of tips on how to vet at-home tests:

· Only buy tests authorized by the FDA.
· Check the FDA’s lists of antigen diagnostic tests and molecular diagnostic tests before buying, to find the tests authorized for home use. (EUA is “emergency use authorization.”)
· Check out a seller before you buy, especially if you’re buying from a site you don’t know. Search online for the website, company, or seller’s name plus words like “scam,” “complaint,” or “review.”
· Compare online reviews from a wide variety of websites. You can get a good idea about a company, product, or service from reading user reviews on various retail or shopping comparison sites.
· Think about the source of the review. Consider whether the review is coming from an expert organization or an individual customer.
· When buying online, pay by credit card. If you’re charged for an order you never got, or for a product that is not as advertised, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.
· If you have been scammed, report it directly the FTC (www.reportfraud.ftc.gov) or contact the DA’s consumer protection team at consumer@sdcda.org.

If you are looking for an in-person test site, San Diego County provides a list of authorized free test sites on its website (www.sandiegocounty.gov).

Finally, since Governor Newsom’s executive order declares a state of emergency through March 31, 2022, the price gouging laws will be in effect until the end of April. The order prohibits sellers from increasing prices on test kits by more than 10% if they had been selling them as of December 1, 2021, unless they can prove their costs have increased. Anyone who began selling tests after December 1, 2021 may not charge 50% greater than what they paid for the kit themselves. A new law that the San Diego District Attorney’s Office co-sponsored expands the price gouging laws to online purchases.

“We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to protect our community against fraudulent COVID schemes, fraud and price gouging” DA Stephan said.

To report an incident of price gouging or a fake or suspicious testing site, you can call the San Diego District Attorney consumer hotline at (619) 531-3507 or by email at consumer@sdcda.org.

The Consumer Protection Unit is comprised of Deputy District Attorneys, Investigators and Paralegals dedicated to protecting consumers and law-abiding businesses from fraudulent or unfair business practices.

Former Sheriff’s Deputy Pleads Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter

Former San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Russell, 25, pleaded guilty today to one felony count of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the shooting death of a man he saw escape from a patrol car near the downtown San Diego jail in May of 2020. Russell also admitted he personally used a firearm in the commission of the crime. Russell shot Nicholas Bils, 36, in the back and the side as he ran near Front and B Streets. The incident was caught on a Smart Streetlight surveillance camera near the intersection.

Russell is scheduled to be sentenced by Superior Court Judge Francis Devaney on February 7. He faces up to 11 years in state prison.

“As in every case, my office follows the law and the evidence in pursuing a fair and equal justice for all,” said District Attorney Summer Stephan. “After an extensive analysis of all the evidence, including that presented by the defense after the preliminary hearing, the defendant’s guilty plea to felony voluntary manslaughter accurately reflects that this is a homicide in which the victim was unlawfully killed, and that the former deputy sheriff erroneously and unreasonably believed it was necessary to defend against a perceived imminent threat. The District Attorney’s Office has met with the victim’s mother regarding this settlement. Her input was a critical component in determining the appropriate resolution as she has suffered an unspeakable loss because of the defendant’s actions. Nothing will bring back this family’s loved one, but we hope this conviction will bring them a measure of justice and accountability.”

Nicholas Bils was being transported to jail in a State Parks patrol car when he slipped his left hand out of a handcuff and burst out of the vehicle. A nearby State Parks officer opened the door of his pickup and tried to get out to stop Bils, but Bils shoved the door against the officer and took off running, handcuffs still on Bils’ right wrist. The officer from the pickup ran after Bils. Russell, who was then a Sheriff’s Deputy, was standing at the intersection in uniform and observed the attempted escape. As Bils ran with a handcuff around his right wrist, Russell fired five shots, striking Bils four times.

During a preliminary hearing, a fellow Sheriff’s Deputy who had also witnessed the attempted escape, testified that he planned to chase and tackle Bils. He testified he saw no need for any type of other force and did not feel anyone in the area was in immediate danger. Following a preliminary hearing, Russell was ordered to face trial on a charge of second-degree murder.

Russell’s attorneys raised several theories of justification for the use of the force, but in the plea agreement entered into the public record today, Russell admitted that he “unreasonably believed that I or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury. I actually, but unreasonably believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger. I, therefore, acting alone, personally used my department-issued firearm to shoot Nicholas Bils, ending his life.”

In January 2020, California law changed to make use of deadly force permissible only when “necessary,” when a life is in imminent danger and nonlethal methods are not available. Previously, deadly force had been allowable when “reasonable.” Russell is the first law enforcement officer in California to be charged with murder since the state raised the standard for when peace officers can use deadly force.

Sex Offender Charged with Double Murder

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced multiple criminal charges today against Marco Antonio Valadez, 47, in connection with a December 4 shooting that killed Raquel Pitsenburger, 55, and Marco Antonio Valadez, Jr., 36. Valadez has been charged with two counts of murder and sex abuse charges, stemming from a fatal confrontation in which he was trying to silence family members who were potential witnesses following the disclosure of his sex crimes.

Valadez has also been charged with two felony sexual assault charges for acts committed against Valadez’s 18-year-old family member two days prior to the murders. The two murder charges carry the special circumstances of killing a witness, multiple homicides and allegations of personal discharge of a firearm causing death and committing the offense while out on bail. The sex abuse charges carry “one strike” and “habitual sex offender” allegations for Valadez’s prior conviction for forcible rape in 1998. He also has multiple serious prior felony prior convictions alleged as part of the charges.

“We’re committed to delivering justice for this family in what is one of the most disturbing crimes committed in San Diego County in 2021.” DA Stephan said. “Thanks to the coordination and dedication of our law enforcement partners, this dangerous criminal was captured in Mexico and returned to San Diego to be held accountable.”

San Diego Sheriff’s Department Homicide and Family Protection Division detectives coordinated the murder investigation, and Valadez was arrested in Mexico and handed over to U.S. authorities on December 16.

Valadez pleaded not guilty in San Diego Superior Court today and is being held without bail. The murder charges with the alleged special circumstances make Valadez eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. His next court date is March 28 for a status hearing.

DAs Granted Temporary Restraining Order Stopping Earlier Releases for Serious, Violent Criminals by CDCR

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that she and 27 elected District Attorneys across California have been granted a temporary restraining order, by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Raymond Cadei, preventing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) from enacting an increase from 50% “good time” custody credits to 66% credits for inmates who have been previously convicted of one or more serious and violent crimes.

The court order comes in the wake of CDCR’s recently enacted “emergency” regulations that allow for additional custody credits to be awarded to serious and violent felons, leading to their earlier release from prison, including credits that are not based upon completing any rehabilitation programs.

CDCR’s newest regulations also grant additional good conduct credits to inmates working in fire camp related activities. Unrelated to fire camp credits, CDCR sought to increase credits to 66% good conduct credits and two-thirds time shaved off sentences to second strike inmates. CDCR took this action amid a pending lawsuit that San Diego DA also joined in challenging the additional credits on the basis that it had illegally used the emergency exception to bypass public comment. The new class of credits would include providing addition custody credits for inmates convicted of domestic violence, residential burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, human trafficking and possession of weapons, who also have previous convictions for serious and violent felonies.

“Releasing inmates early who have committed atrocious crimes after only serving a fraction of their sentence threatens the safety of our communities and is a slap in the face to crime victims who are still suffering,” DA Stephan said. “My fellow District Attorneys and I do not contest good conduct credits for fire camp work, but extending those credits to inmates with serious and violent criminal histories is not in the interest of justice or the public’s safety.”

To stop the enforcement of this newest early release “emergency regulation,” the 28 District Attorneys filed a temporary restraining order on December 22 with Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office as the lead author. On December 29, the court granted the petition and issued the order against CDCR, opening the avenue to file a full lawsuit.