What Is Veterans Court? Who Is Eligible? How Does It Work?

Veterans Court is a post-plea program crafted to recognize the relationship between those who have committed certain felony criminal offenses due to mental or psychological disorders they acquired as a result of service to our county.  For example, a veteran may suffer from PTSD due to combat experiences and then, as a result of the PTSD, often yells loudly in public while having a flashback, violating Penal Code § 415, disturbing the peace.
 
The goal of the program is to afford residential or outpatient treatment to such veterans suffering from documented service-related disorders instead of prison and, if the veteran successfully completes the rehabilitative program, to allow the veteran to withdraw his plea and the judge to dismiss the case in the interests of justice (California Penal Code § 1385).

Put another way, it is a really good deal for a veteran looking at prison.  Instead of prison, the individual can earn a dismissal and receive court-monitored treatment, usually through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs at one of their hospitals, even if the hospital or treatment facility is outside Los Angeles County.

More importantly, it is a “life line” of sorts for someone who may otherwise lose his or her VA benefits if he or she actually serves more than sixty or ninety days in prison (often through county jail).

A qualified veteran must be documented as having a 10% or more service-related mental or psychological disorder such as PTSD, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse issues or other mental health issues related to service to our country.
 
In our experience, the veteran must present his DD-214 discharge paperwork as well as a medical diagnosis, usually in his final medical examination.  The individual must also be entitled to veteran’s benefits, which means he cannot have a bad conduct discharge (BCD).

The felony criminal conduct at issue must then have some causal connection or link to the service-related disability.  For example, if someone has a 20 percent service-related disability for PTSD, the veteran’s attorney (or an expert) must establish that the cause of the criminal conduct, or a contributing factor, was the service-related mental or psychological disability.

This can be easy if for example, the service related disability is alcohol abuse, characterized by binge drinking, and the veteran is charged with felony DUI.  This can be difficult when, for example, a veteran with the same disability is charged with felony embezzlement and alcohol is not involved at all.

Veterans Court is administered through designated judges in only certain courthouses.  In Los Angeles County, it is only available right now through the Downtown Los Angeles, at CCB, in Department 42 with Judge Michael Tynan and in Long Beach Superior Court, in Department 12 with Judge Marcelita Haynes.

Not every veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces is eligible.  The charges may only be for non-violent, non-serious felony offense and who have no prior strikes (certain convictions for serious or violent felonies) and are not a registered sex offender under Penal Code § 290.

In addition, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs must complete a suitability evaluation of any veteran who seeks to avail himself of this program.

Once accepted to the program, the veteran is ordered by the judge to the supervision of the VA, which will then customize a program for each participant.  The expenses of the program are mostly paid for through the veteran’s veterans benefits. 

The program lasts a minimum of eighteen months, but can stretch out to five years.  The program is extremely small, usually totaling only 75 to 100 participants in all of Los Angeles County at any one time.
 
The judge will hold periodic progress hearings on the veteran’s progress and, when the veteran finishes the program, will have a graduation ceremony accompanying the dismissal of the case.

For more information about issues involving veterans, please click on the following articles:
  1. Sentencing Alternatives for Military Veterans under Penal Code § 1170.9
  2. Diversion Programs in California for Armed Forces Veterans
  3. Is Diversion Available for Veterans in a DUI? Yes
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