Sonoma County lawyers say plea bargains invaluable

  • Criminal defense attorney Walter Rubenstein, left, and Sonoma County deputy district attorney Robert Maddock discuss a case in the hallway at Sonoma County Superior Court, in Santa Rosa on Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The call came as defense attorney Walter Rubenstein was preparing for the trial of an unlicensed driver who had struck and killed a Sebastopol motorcyclist.

Prosecutors wanted to deal.

After reviewing the evidence, they offered to drop vehicular manslaughter charges against Jorge Valencia-Figueroa, then 33, of Cloverdale, who was accused of careening into Glenn Vierra, 58, as he rode his Harley-Davidson on Highway 116 near Cotati.

All Valencia-Figueroa had to do was give up his right to a trial and admit driving without a license — a misdemeanor carrying a six-month jail sentence. It was something he had been cited for four times before. Then he would be eligible for release with credit for time already served.

Rubenstein didn't need to be asked twice. He took the deal.

"They could have made the argument that he didn't use caution and what he did was inherently dangerous," Rubenstein said. "But I think they did the right thing."

Vierra's family disagreed.

"We were all pretty upset about what happened," said his son, Andrew Vierra, of Eagle, Idaho. "I definitely feel (Valencia-Figueroa) wasn't held accountable for what he did."

In what may come as a surprise to many, a fraction of offenders charged with crimes in Sonoma County ever go to trial. All but three-quarters of 1 percent of the more than 15,000 felony and misdemeanor cases resolved last fiscal year were settled by other means. The overwhelming majority were disposed of by plea bargaining.

The widely accepted practice that defies TV courtroom stereotypes is seen as necessary to relieve the overburdened criminal justice system while offering defendants a measure of certainty about the punishment they will receive.

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