Our client, age 46, was a health care employee in mid-2021 assigned to the Pomona Fairgrounds location for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health workers administering free COVID-19 vaccine shots. He lived in Nevada, but had been assigned to this location to help with administering the shots and distributing the COVID-19 vaccination card to each person who received such a vaccine shot.
On one particular morning, with the temperate in the low 40’s, our client reported to the location at the assigned time, about 7:30 a.m., signed in and was told there would be the usual daily meeting at 8:30 a.m.
To make use of the next hour, he would take some blank COVID-19 cards and spend the next hour in his car, with his heater running, and write in the date and the manufacture batch numbers on the cards so that when each person getting a shot received the shot later than day, the card would only need the person’s name to be added to the card. It sped up the process by eliminating the time needed to otherwise write in the same information on each card for each person receiving a shot.
A security guard at the location noticed our client walking back from the staff check-in location to his car with a stack of about 100 COVID-19 vaccination cards. He suspected our client was stealing the cards, so he called the police, who came to the location and investigated our client. Our client explained that he was writing in the information for the day’s vaccine information, but the police did not find this credible and arrested him.
Police then searched our client’s hotel room and found several hundred more cards for a total of 528 blank vaccinations cards.
News of the arrest was blasted on the radio, newspaper, Internet and television. They story told was that our client was planning on selling such cards to those who needed to show proof of being vaccinated, but who were hesitant to actually receive the vaccine. The cards were known as counterfeit COVID-19 cards (even though the cards were authentic).
New Los Angeles County District Attorney promised to punish our client “to the fullest extent of the law,” which meant as felony grand theft and possibly, with prison time.
The client then called up Greg Hill & Associates and explained the facts of his case. He had never sold a single card and his computer and phone, if forensically examined, would show he did not even have accounts on eBay, Craigslist or Offer Up. Likewise, there were no texts or emails arranging to sell such cards. Our client had no criminal history. He was a member of the U.S. Army reserve out of Las Vegas.
Greg explained that the big issue, as he saw it, was what was the value of a blank vaccination card. While the card certainly could be filled in with information to make the card appear authentic, none of the cards seized as evidence had any information added.
The Pomona District Attorney’s Office filed a complaint alleging our client violated Penal Code § 487(a), felony grand theft. The initial plea bargain offered to our client was two years in state prison.
Greg attempted to persuade the prosecutor to lower the charge to a misdemeanor level, to which our client agreed he would plea, as he would be kicked out of the Army Reserves is he was convicted of a felony. The prosecutor, heeding the promise of George Gascon to punish our client “to the fullest extent of the law,” refused.
The case then went to a preliminary hearing, wherein the prosecution offered evidence of the cards’ value by news accounts (hearsay, Greg objected) of folks selling such fake cards in Northern California a month after our client was arrested, and in Virginia six months later.
Greg argued at the preliminary hearing that value for purposes of grand theft is measured at the time of the theft, not one month later from a location 500 miles away, when the value of the vaccine cards changed almost daily with news about the dangers of being vaccinated and the ever-changing requirements for showing proof of being vaccinated to travel, enter a restaurant or public place or go to school.
The People then cited to a case, People v. Romanowski (2017) 2 Cal. 5th 903, 916, to support their argument that the card’s value could be determined based on a methodology used in the case. The judge readily agreed to such legal support without even reading the case and held the case over.
Greg then filed a Penal Code § 995 motion to dismiss, arguing that the judge at the preliminary hearing erred in relying upon Romanowski to fix the value of the cards because the case facts of Romanowski were nothing like those in this case.
The District Attorney’s Office reluctantly agreed and offered our client a misdemeanor plea to the charge, but with an obligation to perform 90 days of community labor, which was a very heavy amount. Our client accepted the offer, nonetheless, eager to preserve his job in the Army Reserves, and mindful of the public hysteria about COVID-19 health dangers that might lead to a felony conviction and even prison time.
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