Facebook groups have become the new neighborhood watch. They can also become a legal nightmare.

For decades, certain signs affixed to stop signs and other traffic fixtures were installed with the intention of giving would-be criminals food for second thought.

The signs warned of a neighborhood watch, a type of grassroots organization where civilians band together to keep an eye out for graffiti, vandalism and petty crimes.

With roots dating back to the 1960s, neighborhood watch groups were embraced by law enforcement agencies as effective ways to deter crime and help solve cases. But in the era of social media, neighborhood watch groups no longer involve monthly meetings at the house down the street — now it’s as simple as logging on to Nextdoor or uploading Ring doorbell camera footage to a community Facebook group.

In some cases, these groups are hyperfocused on a single event. Such was the case earlier this year when two Facebook groups were launched following the disappearance of 11-year-old Roman Lopez from Placerville.

Roman was living with his biological father, step mother and seven other children when he disappeared from his home. His body was found the next day, and police labeled the death as “suspicious.”

But despite the FBI’s involvement in the case, no suspect has been identified, and police are still trying to figure out what happened.

Anxious residents in Placerville have turned to each other on Facebook to help piece together clues and solve the mystery of Roman’s death. One Facebook group quickly swelled to over 6,000 participants as word of the case spread across the country, CBS13 reported.

Kristin Jabs, an administrator of one of the groups, said she simply wanted to help after learning about Roman. She now speaks publicly on the family’s behalf, acting as a liaison between reporters and family members.

Jabs acknowledges people post their own theories about what happened, which can include pointing fingers at other people, something attorney Mark Reichel said could present certain legal liabilities.

Mark said a person can sue for slander if they are damaged or harmed by what another person posts in a Facebook neighborhood watch group, but he also says those type of slander cases can be difficult to prove.

“To prevail on it, you have to have some real evidence that there is some damage to your reputation,” Mark told CBS13.

It could also have implications on the outcome of criminal cases if police do identify and arrest a suspect, Mark warned, adding that certain information posted to social media could taint a jury pool.

But Mark acknowledges that social media can be a good source of information, including what everyday citizens and community members think happened in a case.

“You can get honest observations, and I have in cases, just like that actually,” Mark said.

Click here to read the full story from CBS13 News

Tara Reade testified as an expert witness in criminal cases. Defense attorneys now want those cases re-opened.

Defense attorneys representing clients who were convicted in criminal cases are moving to have those cases re-examined and convictions possibly thrown out due to one key element in each case: Tara Reade.

Reade, who also goes by the alias Alexandra McCabe, testified as an expert witness in several California criminal cases over the past decade, offering her experience as a survivor of spousal abuse.

Reade made international headlines in March after she accused presidential candidate and current senator Joe Biden of sexual assault. She repeated the allegation a few weeks later in an interview published by the New York Times. In both interviews, Reade claimed the assault happened while she was working as a campaign staffer at Biden’s Capitol Hill office in the early 1990s. (Biden, who is in the middle of a presidential campaign, denied Reade’s allegation earlier this month.)

As reporters worked through the details of Reade’s allegation, some journalists began fact-checking her time at Biden’s office. Reporters with the PBS NewsHour spoke with more than six dozen people who once worked for Sen. Biden. While some staff members admitted Biden was a “toucher” who sometimes made them feel uncomfortable, no one interviewed by the news organization said Biden had sexually harassed or assaulted them, and all of the former staffers were adamant they had not heard rumors about Biden harassing or abusing others until Reade went pubic with her accusation.

Some reporters dove deeper into Reade’s background, examining her education and work history. One reporter for CNN contacted Ohio-based Antioch University to ask about Reade’s academic record. Though Reade claimed to have received a degree from Antioch University’s Seattle campus, officials with the school said they had no record of her graduating or receiving a degree.

When questioned about her degree status, Reade told reporters she graduated under a special arrangement with Antioch University’s chancellor following a legal name change. An unofficial transcript from Seattle University, where Reade received a separate degree, listed Antioch University as a prior degree-granting institution, according to one report.

But a university official told POLITICO no such arrangement existed. The spokesperson later told the New York Times that they were absolutely certain Reade had not graduated from their school.

That could prove problematic after Reade said, under oath, that she received a degree from Antioch University while testifying as an expert witness in dozens of cases brought in Monterey County, California. Defense attorneys there are now combing through cases connected to Reade’s testimony to see if they can be re-opened based upon these new media revelations.

In one case, Reade not only swore under oath that she received a degree from Antioch University but also claimed to be currently working as a substitute teacher. Employment records obtained by the Times showed she was actually working as a staff assistant.

During the trial, defense attorney Roland Soltesz objected, saying Reade’s work experience didn’t qualify her as an expert witness. The judge overruled the objection. Soltesz’s client was sentenced to several life terms after being convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and arson, the Times said.

Now Soltesz is seeking to have that case, and possibly others, re-examined.

“People have been convicted based upon this, and that’s wrong,” Soltesz told the newspaper.

While making a false statement during sworn testimony in court is a crime, prosecutors must prove that the person who made the false statement did so with knowledge and intent to deceive. Those elements can be difficult to prove, legal experts say.

But defense attorneys could have an easier time pursuing a reversal of a verdict if they can show that Reade exaggerated her education and employment history — qualifications that once earned her a spot in the witness stand.

“An expert can only testify in certain circumstances,” Sacramento criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told the New York Times. “One of them is that they have expertise above the regular person. The jury is entitled to hear your qualifications.”

Inauthentic qualifications by an expert witness not only undermines the criminal justice system, it opens the door for a conviction to be overturned. If that happens, some cases may be remanded for a new trial, while other defendants could be set free.

In an interview with the Times, Berkley Brannon, the chief deputy assistant district attorney for Monterey County, said his office would work to contact district attorneys about cases in which Reade testified if it could be proven that she did not earn a degree as she claimed under oath.

“That would absolutely be of concern to us, and it’s something that the defense attorneys would need to know about,” Brannon said. “We don’t want people that we call lying about anything.”


The New York Times:
“As Tara Reade’s Expert Witness Credentials Are Questioned, So Are Verdicts”

The Monterey County Weekly:
“Convictions Could Be Challenged as Defense Attorneys Question Tara Reade’s Credentials”

“Defense Lawyers Look to Reopen Cases Where Tara Reade Testified as an Expert”

DOJ tells Gov. Newsom phased reopening of churches may violate constitution

Click/tap to read the letter sent by the Department of Justice to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The U.S. Department of Justice has informed California Gov. Gavin Newsom that his state’s COVID-19 phased recovery plan may violated constitutional protections because it groups churches and other places of worship in a later phase compared to sit-down restaurants, shopping malls and other businesses.

In the letter, a copy of which is available here, DOJ attorneys acknowledged Newsom’s need to protect the health, safety and welfare of California residents, but said the “California Reopening Plan” may infringe on certain religious freedoms.

The letter paraphrases an earlier statement issued by U.S. Attorney General William Barr in which he wrote that “government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar non-religious activity.”

“Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other non-religious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest absent the most-compelling reasons,” the DOJ’s letter said.

The letter, dated May 19, was signed by Eric Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Decision. U.S. Attorneys representing each of the four federal districts in California were listed as co-signers. The letter was sent to Newsom via California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday.

California has put in place a four-phase system for reopening certain public businesses and other institutions following a state-wide shutdown in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. State officials have given nearly three dozen counties the green light to enter “Phase 2” of the plan, which allows for sit-down restaurants and some retailers to re-open, assuming those businesses adhere to “social distancing” practices.

Barbershops, nail salons and gyms are grouped into “Phase 3” of the plan, as are churches and other places of worship. No county has applied to enter that phase of re-opening as of Wednesday evening.

Reaction to the governor’s plan has been mixed, with some churchgoers telling local news outlets they intend to continue worshipping from a distance.

But others have complained about Newsom’s plan since it was enacted. Several lawsuits have been filed in federal court seeking to overturn the closure, while other lawsuits have asked to reclassify places of worship as “essential services,” a tier of organizations that has been given priority for reopening.

Speaking to CBS13 News, civil litigator Mark Reichel said DOJ attorneys may have a case against state officials if they decide to pursue the issue in court.

“Until a federal judge says the churches have to open, the governor can still keep them close,” Mark said, adding that state officials aren’t required to respond to the letter until a lawsuit is brought.

Click here to read the full story from CBS13 News

Why COVID-19 could earn some criminal defendants their freedom

The months-long global coronavirus pandemic has halted the normal course of life for millions of people in the United States and around the world. As states grapple with decisions on how to reopen local economies, state and federal courthouses in California are modifying their operating procedures to keep the wheels of justice moving.

Inside the Sacramento County Superior Courtroom, judges, attorneys and defendants are meeting regularly for hearings via Zoom, a teleconferencing app, in lieu of in-person court hearings. Each day, criminal defendants appear in one courtroom to have their cases heard by a judge who is often sitting in another room. Attorneys for both sides are in their own rooms, with all parties appearing via the Internet.

Right now, court proceedings are largely limited to arraignments and bench trials heard before a judge. But that’s a problem for potentially hundreds of criminal defendants who have demanded a trial by jury, something that is their constitutional right.

With no judges currently seating juries for the foreseeable future, it’s quite possible that some criminal defendants could be set free in the coming weeks.

“Individuals in jail are going to say, I’m not agreeing to this time exclusion, I want my day in court,” Mark Reichel told CBS13 News. “The courts are going to say, we can’t bring a jury in here, and [the courts are] going to entertain motions to dismiss the case.”

A local district attorney acknowledged to CBS13 that if juries can’t be seated in a timely manner, some criminal defendants would most likely be set free.

Click here to read the full story on CBS13’s website

Is Gov. Newsom violating constitutional rights with coronavirus stay-at-home orders?

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to order the closure of several state beaches during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has drawn scrutiny and criticism from some members of the public who say the governor is exceeding his power by overriding local authorities.

The criticism reached a peak when Newsom’s order closed several Orange County beaches earlier this month after local officials declared them open.

A Republican state official has filed several lawsuits against the governor in response to his stay-at-home directives, saying Newsom is abridging the constitutional rights of the public.

But attorney Mark Reichel says while the U.S. Supreme Court has held that American rights and freedoms are extensive, “your freedoms cannot cause harm to others.”

In this case, Reichel says the California Department of Justice intends to argue in court that Newsom’s directives is designed to prevent more public harm as the virus known as COVID-19 continues to proliferate throughout the state.

“It’s going to be very difficult for someone to sue and to prevail and say that ‘my constitutional rights are being violated,'” Reichel told FOX40 News.

As a state, California has seen some of the worst of the outbreak, but when observed at a county-by-county level, Reichel says some smaller counties that have not seen as much contagion may have a good case for reopening certain businesses on a case-by-case basis.

“They’re probably are in a decent position to make that argument,” Reichel said.

Click here to watch Mark’s appearance on FOX40 News.

Do protesters have the right to assemble during the coronavirus outbreak?

As California enters its second month on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, some are protesting the state’s decision to keep a shelter-at-home order in place.

In Sacramento, dozens of protesters assembled in front of the Capitol building last week after the California Highway Patrol issued demonstrators a permit.

In a statement to Sacramento’s CBS13, Governor Gavin Newsom said demonstrators were issued a permit because the state originally thought the protesters would remain in their cars. That didn’t happen, and now the CHP is cracking down on demonstrations by denying all protest permits connected with state facilities, including the Capitol.

Some demonstrators argue this is an infringement of their free speech rights, but criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told CBS13 there isn’t much precedent in the law for this type of issue.

“There’s no case law on this,” Mark said, adding that protesters apparently weren’t being targeted because of their message.

“It’s not the speech or the content, but its the manner in which they were going to do it the state has determined would violate the health emergency that’s going on,” Mark said.

Governor Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March shortly after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Worldwide, more than 2.9 million people have contracted COVID-19 and around 203,000 people have died from the disease since it was first discovered in December 2019.

In California, more than 41,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since February. The state has recorded more than 1,600 deaths, though the official count may be higher.

Click here to read the full story from CBS13

Church files lawsuit against Gov. Newsom over stay-at-home directive

A Christian church in California’s San Joaquin Valley has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, arguing the governor’s stay-at-home order that prompted the closure of their church violates their constitutional religious protections.

The governor’s stay-at-home order was issued in March after hundreds of Californians contracted the novel coronavirus COVID-19, part of a global pandemic of the virus that spread from state to state and country to country.

The governor said his stay-at-home order — one of the first in the nation — was a practical measure to keep residents of the Golden State safe. But in a federal lawsuit filed this month, the Cross Culture Christian Church in Lodi says they believe they should be exempt from the governor’s directive that bans mass gatherings in public.

The governor has made exceptions in his orders for “essential” businesses and organizations like grocery stores and hospitals. Cross Culture Christian Church says it’s not only their desire to see religious organizations like theirs deemed an essential organization, but their constitutional right to gather and worship.

Speaking to FOX40 News, attorney Mark Reichel says the governor’s stay-at-home order exempts businesses and organizations like grocery stores because the public’s risk exposure is limited since most residents are only expected to stay in a store for a short period of time. That’s different from a church, where worshippers gather for an extended period of time.

“The public health [reason] behind it is that people are going to be there for a while,” Mark said.

Mark said there’s not a lot of legal precedent when it comes to ordering churches and other religious establishments to close, though recent lawsuits have created some conflicting opinions from judges.

In Kansas, a federal judge found that a similar stay-at-home order in that state violated religious freedom rights by specifically limiting in-person worship sessions to less than 10 individuals at any given time. The ruling in mid-April paved the way for two churches to hold sessions as they regularly would.

But around the same time, a federal judge in San Diego denied an exemption request from a local church, even though members of that church offered to stay in their cars and wear head-to-toe protective gear in order to attend Easter Sunday services. An attorney representing the Abiding Place Ministries argued that a growing list of exemptions allowed San Diego residents to purchase marijuana, among other things, but not attend religious services at the church where he’s a member, Abiding Place Ministries.

An attorney for the county said religious services weren’t specifically targeted. Instead, there was a wide, blanket ban on non-essential gatherings. That attorney said the church’s offer to social distance and wear protective gear couldn’t be adequately enforced because the county didn’t have enough law enforcement personnel to police the worshippers.

A federal judge sided with the county in that case, finding the church had the authority to “limit the exercise of religion when faced with a public health crisis,” local NBC station KNSD-TV reported.

The split between federal courts may, on one hand, have something to do with the types of exemptions and restrictions in each state and county. On the other hand, judges have been referring to the coronavirus pandemic as a “once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” Mark told FOX40, and legal officials are having to figure things out on the fly.

Click here to read the full story from FOX40.com