Fresno Judge Censured|for ‘Honor Release’

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A Fresno County Superior Judge can remain on the bench but will be censured for helping an acquaintance accused of spousal abuse get out of jail for free, the state’s judicial commission ruled Tuesday.
     The Commission on Judicial Performance determined that Judge James Petrucelli’s behavior amounted to prejudicial misconduct.
     “In issuing this censure, the most severe discipline that may be imposed short of removal, we seek to assure the public that judicial action reflecting preferential treatment to friends or family, even if undertaken in good faith, is seriously at odds with the standards of judicial conduct expected of judges in this state,” the commission wrote.
     The disciplinary case stems from an incident in July 2013 where the judge received a text message from his friend, attorney Jonathan Netzer, asking for advice on bailing out a mutual acquaintance who had been arrested the night before on suspicion of felony spousal abuse.
     Petrucelli called the jail and ordered correctional officers to release Jay Ghazal – with whom the judge had frequently socialized with at a cigar shop – on his own recognizance less than a day after his arrest.
     The judge did not think he had done anything wrong because the so-called “honor release” had been done by Fresno County judges in the past. However, the practice has been prohibited since a law enacted in 1999 required felony domestic violence suspects to appear in open court before they can be released, the commission said.
     “We consider the judge to have been exceedingly remiss in failing to inquire whether the ‘honor release’ practice he became aware of years earlier was still considered proper, whether it was ever considered proper in a matter in which the judge would otherwise be disqualified, and whether there had been any changes in the law that would prohibit such a release,” the commission wrote.
     “Such inquiries might have prevented the judge from going down the path that led to these proceedings and this censure,” the commission added.
     Marsy’s Law in 2008 also requires judges to consider a victim’s safety before releasing a suspect, which the commission said Petrucelli did not do. The judge claimed to be unaware of the law.
     Petrucelli “made no effort to determine independently the facts that led to the arrest, whether the wife was injured, or whether Ghazal had a history of domestic violence or criminal convictions. Nor did he make any effort to determine if Ghazal’s wife or the DA objected to the release,” the commission stated.
     The judge continued to behave in a questionable manner when he socialized with Ghazal the evening of the release at a large fundraiser and later put Ghazal in touch with a defense lawyer.
     Ghazal later pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors for false imprisonment and contempt of court, and the felony charges were dismissed.
     The commission found that the brief remarks at the fundraiser, which were initiated by Ghazal, do not constitute misconduct.
     “However, we conclude that the judge’s efforts to assist Ghazal in retaining an attorney constitutes a violation of canons 2 (judge shall avoid appearance of impropriety) and 2A (judge shall act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary),” the commission said.
     Although Petrucelli was initially “amazed” to learn that he had done something improper by releasing Ghazal, he admitted in hindsight that his actions were wrong, the commission stated.
     The commission found the evidence did not show that Petrucelli “acted with an utter indifference to whether his actions exceeded his judicial authority.”
     Although Petrucelli’s misconduct might warrant removal from the bench, the commission determined that imposing a severe censure was more appropriate considering the facts of the case, including that this was an isolated incident.
     The censure is the harshest discipline in the judge’s career. He received a public admonishment in 2007 and advisory letters in 2001 and 2002. The prior discipline primarily pertained to the judge’s courtroom demeanor, but the 2002 letter included his misconduct in failing to disqualify himself in matters involving an attorney with whom he had practiced and had a continued financial arrangement.
     Petrucelli’s attorney, Kathleen Ewins, said that the commission reached the right conclusion in the case after taking the time to understand the facts.
     “The judge accepts the discipline, has learned from the experience, and it will make him a better judge. He is pleased that he can now focus 100 percent of his attention on serving the Fresno community that he loves,” Ewins said.

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