DUI Diversion Plan for|Veterans Splits Calif. Courts

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — Contradicting language in California’s penal and vehicle codes has created a split between state appeals courts as to whether military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can enter diversion programs after being charged with DUIs.
     This past week, a Second Appellate District panel ruled that a section of California Penal Code allows for a military member suffering from PTSD to enter a pretrial diversion program.
     In August 2015, Terence Hopkins requested a pretrial diversion after pleading not guilty to DUI charges. Enacted in 2014, the pretrial diversion program is designed to help veterans keep convictions off their records by getting them the services they need for any suffering they experience as a result of their military service, including PTSD.
     The program also hopes to make it easier for employers to offer veterans jobs since they will not have a criminal record if they successfully complete the program.
     A veteran who is charged with a misdemeanor offense can qualify for the program if they are currently or have been a member of the United States military and suffer as a result of their service, and are willing to waive their right to a speedy trial.
     Veterans who successfully complete the program during the diversion time period have their criminal charges dismissed.
     To support his diversion request, Hopkins provided a letter from Pamela Davis, a clinical social worker for the Department of Veteran Affairs which stated he was exposed to severe trauma while serving in the U.S. Navy Reserves for over a year.
     According to Davis, Hopkins completed a year-long tour in Afghanistan where he served as a military police officer at an internment facility that held al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
     Davis also noted that Hopkins began to get mental health services in 2015 after it was determined that he suffered from service-connected PTSD.
     Hopkins also provided two letters from Dr. Benjamin Shapiro, whom he started seeing two weeks after the DUI charges were filed against him.
     Shapiro created a plan for Hopkins after he complained that he had a binge-drinking problem.
     According to the letters Shapiro submitted, Hopkins was in recovery for alcohol dependence that was due to his combat exposure, and anticipated that he would remain sober since he is committed to his family and future.
     The current controversy is whether state vehicle code prohibits a pretrial diversion for military members charged with driving under the influence, since Hopkins undisputedly met the criteria to qualify for a diversion under state penal code.
     In considering the “seemingly inconsistent” pretrial diversion program and vehicle code, the three-judge panel granted Hopkins pretrial diversion petition after citing the California Supreme Court’s recent approach when faced with inconsistent statues:
     “A court must, where reasonably possible, harmonize statutes, reconcile seeming inconsistencies in them, and construe them to give force and effect to all of their provisions. Thus, when two codes are to be construed, they must regard as blending into each other and forming a single statute.”
     Although the vehicle code unambiguously states that a person charged with a DUI must not be granted a pretrial diversion, the panel found that the 2014 enactment of pretrial diversion program supersedes the 1982 vehicle code.
     Writing for the court, Judge Thomas Willhite said “there are strong indications that the Legislature intended the military diversion program to apply in all misdemeanor cases, including DUI cases.”
     In its analysis of the bill that created the diversion program, authored by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, the Senate Committee on Public Safety explained the importance of the program: “California has nearly 2 million military veterans living in the state, more than any other state in the country. Many of these veterans suffer from service related trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, some veterans find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system.
     “The point of the diversion program will be to get help for veterans who may be suffering as a result of their service. This will allow them not only to get the proper services but also allow them to be more easily employed in the future by keeping crime off their record if they complete the diversion program successfully,” the committee stated.
     In making their determination to grant Hopkin’s request for a pretrial diversion, the appellate panel urged the Legislature to amend the relevant codes in order to express its intent regarding military diversion in DUI cases — especially given that the Fourth Appellate District reached an opposite conclusion last month.
     In determining the People vs. VanVleck, the San Diego-based appeals court determined that two military members were not eligible for pretrial diversions in DUI cases — finding that the language of the vehicle code was more specific than the penal code.
     In disagreeing with the VanVleck analysis, Willhite wrote that the only way to reach that conclusion would be to make an “arbitrary choice of focus” since the penal code is specific about who qualifies for the diversion program and the vehicle code specifically bars diversion for anyone charged with DUI misdemeanors.
     Representing Hopkins, Los Angeles Public Defender Dylan Ford did not reply to a request for comment by press time.
     The state Attorney General’s press office also did not respond to a request for comment.

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