Thursday, March 20, 2008
It’s graduation day for Paul Gonzalez, a stocky man with a tattoo on his arm. He stands nervously in front of the Monterey County drug courtroom with his wife and 2-year-old son, who scampers about carrying a cell phone. Instead of a diploma, Judge Stephen Sillman hands Gonzalez a certificate for completing the county’s Proposition 36 program. After 18 months of substance-abuse treatment, Gonzalez and other graduates are not only sober, Sillman also has dismissed their drug-possession and other criminal charges.
Gonzalez is thrilled he was able to join the program. “It’s one of the best decisions of my life,” he says. “I’ll tell you that much.”
Public Defender James Egar watches the ceremony from a row of white leather seats. Egar is broad-shouldered with gray hair and glasses. He wears a dark blue blazer with a pinstripe shirt and tie. Colleagues describe him as friendly, energetic and a hell of a good lawyer who has measurably improved representation for clients who can’t afford private counsel.
Deputy Public Defender Tracy Mooney credits Egar with turning around the Prop. 36 program. Before Egar’s arrival, the program “suffered from neglect and our success rate was real low,” Mooney says.
But after Mooney returned from maternity leave, Egar assigned her to focus solely on Prop. 36 clients’ rehabilitation. Case dismissals through the program peaked last year at 155, compared with 70 in 2005, according to Tabatha Weeda, Prop. 36 treatment court coordinator. The program now has a 36 percent completion rate, Weeda says.
“With good support and good supervision they are getting clean and staying clean,” Mooney says.In August 2006, Egar replaced Michael Lawrence, who retired after working as Monterey County’s public defender for 26 years.
Unlike Lawrence in his later years, Egar has volunteered to take on criminal cases. On March 3 he successfully got Macheel Roper’s murder charges dropped in an unusual preliminary hearing dismissal. Judge Terrance Duncan determined Roper acted in self defense when she fatally stabbed her husband, Christopher, last December. Egar says he took the Roper case because one of his felony attorneys had family health issues. Part of his agreement with the county, Egar says, was that he wouldn’t always sit behind his desk.
“I did not want to be purely an administrator,” Egar says. “I didn’t become a lawyer to get buried in paperwork.”
Supervisor Fernando Armenta says he is impressed by Egar’s public presentation of issues facing the Public Defender’s Office. Egar attends Gang Task Force Steering Committee meetings, Armenta says, and sat on a panel at a youth violence prevention workshop organized by the North County chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens.
“The fact that he feels comfortable talking about the strength and weaknesses of his department to the community in a very constructive way says a lot about him,” Armenta says. “He doesn’t point any fingers.”
Egar wants more resources and staff in his overloaded office. The office has 24 attorneys and eight investigators and will handle an estimated 19,222 cases this fiscal year, according to the county’s budget. He is in the process of getting another public defender and an interpreter assigned to truancy court. Currently, the sole attorney assigned to truancy court has a caseload of 80 mainly Spanish-speaking clients with no interpreter. “It was ridiculous,” Egar says. “It was a not a really fair system.”
County administration, Egar says, has been mostly receptive to his requests, and the District Attorney’s Office has been collaborative in expanding drug treatment courts. “I don’t want to have fights we don’t need to have, and I want to work together when we can,” Egar says, “which isn’t to say I don’t like a good courtroom drama.”
But he says he has locked horns with the county about its wholesale shackling of inmates for court appearances. “The courts are clear that there needs to be a finding of necessity before shackling is approved on each individual case,” Egar says. Now shackles are generally removed for trials, he adds.
Neither District Attorney Dean Flippo nor Presiding Judge Russell Scott could be reached for comment.Peers in Monterey County describe Egar’s approach as collegial. This wasn’t the case at his previous post, public defender in Santa Barbara County, where he butted heads with Michael Brown, the county’s executive officer. Egar is suing Santa Barbara County and Brown for understaffing his department, subjecting him “to hostile and abusive tirades,” and threatening to fire him.
According to the lawsuit, Egar repeatedly requested more attorneys because several staffers were struggling with physical and mental disabilities because of the excessive caseload. In June 2005, Santa Barbara County Supervisors approved two new deputy public defender positions. The lawsuit alleges Brown wouldn’t fund the positions.
The dispute culminated Oct. 17, 2005, a day before Egar was scheduled to make a budget presentation to the Board of Supervisors, the lawsuit says. During a meeting, Brown allegedly berated Egar with insults, threats and profanities. Brown told Egar “that he would be ‘slaughtered’ in front of the Board of Supervisors,” according to the lawsuit. Brown then allegedly spit in Egar’s face.
After the county failed to investigate Brown’s actions, Egar resigned. Egar says it was “untenable” for him to stay there.
Jeffrey Dinkin, the county’s attorney, says Egar’s charges are without merit. “The complaints are based on the same type of thing he complains about in Monterey County: not enough money, not enough staff, too much work,” he says. “Mr. Egar did battle in the budget front and lost. I guess he isn’t a good loser.”
Egar’s attorney, Janean Daniels, did not return several calls from the Weekly. The case is scheduled for trial in October.
Egar declined to discuss the case, saying he wants to put it behind him.Looking forward, Egar says more staff would give his office’s indigent clients better representation. He is now gathering data to compare his office’s staff and salary levels to other counties. Like most department heads, he will request more money for next fiscal year.
He’s also looking for ways to save the county’s Prop. 36 program, which could face an $800,000 shortfall because of state cuts. To find alternative dollars, Egar applied for a grant to fund methamphetamine treatment for Spanish speakers.
“In my 30-plus years of criminal law, more than anything else, substance abuse is driving the criminal justice system,” Egar says. “Their crime may not have been a drug crime, but that’s what’s driving their life.”
Egar also plans to take a closer look at the demographics of truancy-court students referred by the schools. From what he’s seen, he says, the vast majority of clients are Latino. But Egar hasn’t seen the data and says he doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions. “This is a process and I am looking to solve problems, not create them.”