Houman Fakhimi

Ethical Conflicts can Affect Orange County Criminal Cases

A Santa Ana gang member was sentenced to 19 years behind bars on an attempted murder charge, even though prosecutors had initially hoped to seek a life sentence, under California Penal Codes 664 and 187.

They might have gotten it too, were it not for the amorous lead detective, who reportedly pursued a relationship with the gang member's fiancee - and lied about it.

Orange County Trial Attorney Houman Fakhimi understands that this is one of those cases in which an ethical violation essentially derailed the prosecution.

Such cases may be relatively rare, but they do exist, and defense attorneys have a responsibility to explore conflicts of interest and unethical conduct when they are present, as these revelations can result in a more favorable outcome for the client.

Police, attorneys and judges all have legal boundaries by which they must abide. There is also an ethical code, and violations can range from the simple appearance of conflict to accepting bribes or lying on the witness stand.

In some cases, these actions can be criminal (such as accepting bribes or perjury). Other scenarios may not be illegal (as in a police officer carrying on a relationship with the girlfriend of the defendant he is investigating) but crosses very definitive ethical boundaries. Sanctions for ethical violations can range from a reprimand to termination. For police, such a decision would be made by the respective department, while prosecutors face sanctions from the Bar Association.

The specific interest for defense attorneys is whether that ethical violation has impacted the client's ability to earn a fair trial. In this case, it was clear that it had. How could prosecutors put their lead detective on the stand to testify against the defendant when the detective, in a relationship with the defendant's (now-ex) girlfriend had a vested interest in seeing him locked up?

The simple answer was they could not, and they were forced to negotiate a plea. Nineteen years may sound excessive given that no one died in the alleged incident. However, given the details of the crime, plus this individual's extensive prior criminal history and his verified gang involvement, he was likely to have received a conviction and a much harsher sentence if the officer had not engaged in the relationship.

According to the Orange County Register, the defendant was responsible for a drive-by shooting of a rival gang member back in the spring of 2008. The victim survived. Evidence against him included witness statements, ballistics and other forensics.

The lead detective investigating the case reportedly first had contact with the suspect's fiancee in the course of his investigation. But it was during one of those encounters that he reportedly told her that her fiance was cheating on her. Following that, the pair began having long phone conversations into the night, meeting in motel rooms and reportedly sleeping together in the backs of cars.

The woman later said she was trying to get back at her fiance for cheating on her. She reportedly approached defense attorneys and prosecutors about the relationship, but was not initially believed. However, this is the type of thing that must be taken seriously, as it could have serious implications on a case - particularly one in which so much is at stake.

Later, defense attorneys began receiving communication from an array of sources backing the woman's claim. That information was forwarded to the district attorney's office, which conducted an investigation, along with the Santa Ana Police Department. Although the detective denied the allegation, there was reportedly a great deal of evidence to the contrary, which forced prosecutors to cut a deal.

Other scenarios involving conflict of interest have included:

  • Judges and prosecutors involved in an improper relationship;
  • Attorneys, detectives or judges who have a prior relationship with either the defendant, defendant's family or the victim or victim's relatives;
  • Any indication that any of these parties might unduly benefit from the conviction or acquittal of the defendant.

Contact Houman Fakhimi trial attorney at (714) 705-6701 as soon as possible if you are charged with a crime in Orange County.