Thursday, November 13, 2014

Word of the Month for November 2014: Sentence

Criminal sentencing
Ever since I can remember, I have loved to write.  Short stories, poems, limericks, and even the occasional 50 page paper were a blast.  Love it.  What I could never figure out was sentence structure.  See, when I begin to write, the story is already in my head - I just have to turn my fingers loose.  I have no time to figure out where the adverb is or how what the modifier modifies or whether the noun and verb co-exist. Good thing, then, that I went into law because in a legal sense, sentences and sentencing have little to do with the "how" of writing and, as it happens brings us to our word of the month: SENTENCE.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, SENTENCE is the judgment that a court formally pronounces after finding a criminal defendant guilty; the punishment imposed on a criminal wrong doer.  A number of California's initial sentencing codes are found in Penal Code Section 1170-1170.95.  Also, the National Conference of State Legislators tracks legislation relating to sentencing guidelines in all 50 states.

So, how this all works is that person commits a crime, gets charged with a crime(s), pleads not guilty, case goes to trial, person is found guilty, judge imposes a sentence based on the crime and any criminal history and enhancements based on the nature of the crime. So, for any given crime, there can be any number of additional penalties resulting in months to years in jail or prison and/or thousands of dollars in fines.  

To bring it all into perspective, we had a guy in here the other day.  Seems he had been charged in (and was facing trial for) violation of California Penal Code Section 171 (Unauthorized possession of weapons in state or local public buildings or at public meeting) which states that 
(a) Any person who brings or possess within any state or local public building or at any meeting required to be open to the public...is guilty of a public offense punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or in the state prison.
Seems guy had forgotten that he had a two-inch pen knife attached to his key chain when he walked into a public hear at the county building and was now looking at some time in the pokey.  Good thing he came to the law library and spoke to the law Librarian because, apparently, his lawyer had overlooked section 171(a)(3) which states: 
Any knife with a blade length in excess of four inches, the blade of which is fixed or is capable of being fixed in an unguarded position by the use of one or two hands.
What this means is that because his pen knife was a mere 2 inches, he might not be looking at any time.  The operative word here is "might" because any good lawyer will tell you there are no guarantees in law.

Of course, not everyone is so lucky.  Take, for instance, the Tasmanian Devil looking brutish young lady who came to the law library.  Seems she had decided to take up with "loaning" sums of money to persons down on their luck at the rate of 200% per day and was now being charged with California Civil Code (not all crimes are found in the Penal Code) Section 1916-3.  Known colloquially as "loan sharking," because young lady charged interest far above that which was allowed by law, she was looking at a felony and a punishment of no less than 5 years in state prison.  Yeah, not how you want the year to end.

Bottom line, before you go and accept any deal dealt to you by the DA, might I suggest you visit your local county law library.   Take a look at the state codes under "sentence" or "crimes" or "punishment" or "crimes and punishment" so that you know whether you're looking at some serious time or none at all.  Yeah, that's what you should do.