Probation violations are usually quite specific, meaning that an individual has to commit a particular offense in order to "violate" their probation. However, not every law and ruling is clear, and this could lead to troublesome probation violations. Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys who represent those accused of probation violation know that open-ended laws make it difficult for their clients to be rehabilitated, or even obey the law.
Probation is the suspension of all or part of a jail sentence; the criminal who is "on probation" has been convicted of a crime, but instead of serving jail time, has been found by the Court to be amenable to probation and will be returned to the community for a period in which they will have to abide to certain conditions set forth by the Court under the supervision of a probation officer; or has served part of the sentence but has been released before its end.
General conditions may include maintaining employment, abiding to a curfew, living where directed, abstaining from unlawful behavior, following the probation officer's orders, not absconding, and refraining from contact with other individuals, who may include victims of the original crime (such as a former partner in a domestic violence case), potential victims of similar crimes (such as minors when the crime involves child sexual abuse), potential witnesses, or those who have partnered with the offender in the earlier crime.
Unlikely, perhaps, but it's possible under a ruling this week by the California Supreme Court, which upheld a judge's order requiring a man convicted of drunken driving to tell his probation officer if he had any pets in his home. "Pets residing with probationers have the potential to distract, impede and endanger probation officers" who make unannounced visits, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the 5-2 ruling.
Although the court focused on the dangers posed by frightened or vicious dogs - citing the fatal mauling of a woman in the hallway of a San Francisco apartment building in 2001 and the subsequent murder conviction of the dog's keeper - both the ruling and the original judge's order covered all types of pets, regardless of size or potential menace.
So, at least in theory, a probationer's failure to reveal the presence of a pet turtle or hamster could result in a probation violation and a trip to the slammer.
Dissenting Justice Joyce Kennard chided the court majority in Monday's ruling for applying the same standard to "Jaws the goldfish, Tweety the canary and Hank the hamster" as to animals that might actually present a problem for a probation officer.
In a case where the probation violation is left unclear, or broad, it could give police the opportunity to arrest an individual for violating probation with very little actual offense occurring.
Deputy Attorney General Barry Carlton, one of the state's lawyers, noted that the original order required only that Staley's client, Alejandro Olguin, tell his probation officer whether he had pets. It didn't specifically bar Olguin from having any animal. Carlton said the court had rightly concluded that the probation officer, not the person on probation, should decide which pets might pose problems on a home inspection.
"We presume the probation department will make the appropriate decision," Carlton said. "If they hear the probationer has a goldfish, they'll file it away" and not worry about it. "But a decision about supervision of probationers and safety of law enforcement officers should be made by the probation department."
Probation officers make unscheduled visits and conduct unannounced searches of probationers' homes, missions that might be impeded by a snarling dog or a harmless pup that barked at a stranger's approach, Chief Justice George said in the majority opinion.
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