Is a vehicle a deadly weapon? Or is it just a big, benign baby carriage? Depends on how it's used.
This is the question in the case against Joan E. Rainville, charged with Assault With A Deadly Weapon — her mother's Toyota Camry. A long-time resident of Ukiah best known, apart from her adventures in alcohol-fueled locomotion, as an unfailingly friendly presence at the Mendocino Book Company. Ms. Rainville just keeps on getting behind the wheel when she's loaded.
Mendocino County’s innovative District Attorney, David Eyster, recently profiled in the LA Times for his breakthrough marijuana prosecution policies, has again flabbergasted his critics by bringing the assault with a deadly weapon case against Ms. Rainville. Many local legal experts have derided the DA's charges as “a real stretch,” and many others have dismissed them as “something that would never fly in court.”
Last week they flew.
The problem the DA has is intent. Did Ms. Rainville get loaded and get into her car with a plan to do damage? Can a drop-fall drunk intend anything other than another drink?
Anything can be used as a weapon. A Fort Bragg lady got arrested last week for tossing a propane canister at her dearly beloved. But you don’t have to be an M1 tank commander to know that a vehicle can be a potential means of death and destruction, especially when the “assault weapon,” disguised as a Camry, comes crashing through your fence, onto your patio and plows into your bedroom wall.
“(Deadly) Weapon: Something (such as a gun or knife) used to injure, defeat, or destroy. A device designed to inflict injury or death on an opponent.” — Webster’s Dictionary.
Also, consider the stats: Far more people are killed and maimed by cars than by guns and knives.
So when Ms. Rainville, apparently very drunk, blasted her Camry headlong through a neighbor’s fence and smashed into the wall behind which an eight-year-old boy was sleeping, DA David Eyster decided to charge Joan with felony assault with a deadly weapon. He almost had to because Ms. Rainville had been arrested before for driving drunk, one of them they're still talking about in San Luis Obispo County. And she has just kept on doing it.
“Assault: To set upon with violent force: aggress, assail, attack, beset, fall upon, go at, have at, sail into, strike, storm, baste, batter, beat, belabor, buffet, drub, hammer, pound, pummel, smash, thrash, (slang) clobber, (idiom) rain blows on.” — Roget’s Thesaurus.
On her latest, the one where she put a period on a backyard patio party, Ms. Rainville was originally charged with a misdemeanor DUI, her fifth. She’d several times been given what’s called a Watson Advisement, meaning she could be convicted for murder should she drive again under the influence and kill someone. Joan had been ordered to get an ignition interlock device installed on hercar, but this waas her mother’s Camry, so it hadn't been done. And Joan was driving on a suspended license. And she was behind the wheel drunk — for the fifth time with enough blood alcohol on board (three times the legal limit) to anesthetize a rodeo bull.
Rainville’s neighbor, Blair Carlson was having guests over for a barbecue on his backyard patio. It was about 9pm on May 26th of 2013 when here comes Joan in Mom's Camry right on through Carlson's fence and up onto the patio — narrowly missing a hastily vacated wicker chair — and on into the wall of the home's main bedroom where a child had been asleep.
It was a barbecue to remember for the Carlsons.
At the preliminary hearing last summer then-prosecutor Matthew Hubley pointed out that had the Camry come through the fence a few inches over, the charge would likely be murder. She would have run over the guy in the wicker chair. “Did anyone on that patio,” Hubley had demanded, “all of whom were screaming and yelling for her to stop, wonder if the car was a deadly weapon?”
The transformed Ms. Rainville, ordinarily bookish and mild-mannered, had suddenly become a kind of suburban suicide bomber but one with no discernable political agenda, Mr. Hubley seemed to imply.
“The knowledge [re: the Watson Advisement] that driving under the influence was dangerous to human life,” Hubley said, “supports a charge of assault, which is the intent to commit battery. If there is enough subjective awareness of the risk posed to others, that can arise to the level of implied malice.”
After a few weeks to mull it over, Judge Ann Moorman agreed, and Ms. Rainville was bound over for trial.
The case was subsequently handed off to Chief Deputy DA Paul Sequiera. Defense has also changed hands, from private attorney Justin Petersen to Andrew Higgins of the Office of the Public Defender.
On Thursday, the day usually set for pre-trial motions, and the last gasp for defense to get a case dismissed, Mr. Sequiera was eager to crack on, to prosecute Ms. Rainville to the fullest. The major legal hurdles had been cleared, and once the jury got a look at the defendant’s habit of driving around with astronomical blood alcohol levels — 0.36 when she smashed into a tree in the town of Mendocino, 0.29 when she ass-ended another motorist on South State Street in Ukiah, 0.25 when she “crashed” the Carlson’s patio party — it would be smooth sailing all the way to a conviction.
But Mr. Higgins, who shares a trait with the Lewis Carroll character who was perpetually running late, wanted more time. The case being more than a year old, and with the eminently thorough Mr. Petersen having ploughed most of the legal groundwork already, Higgins’ motion to postpone the inevitable was denied by Judge Ann Moorman.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Higgins hadn’t done his homework for the case, because he brought up, basically, the same arguments Mr. Petersen had presented at the prelim, and it wouldn’t be nice to say Higgins had no strategy of his own, but that’s certainly how it looked. Having apologized to the court for not being ready, Higgins then said the prosecution’s evidence was “subjective” and therefore “inappropriate” — as if the prosecution was guilty of bad manners, not a serious desire to permanently sequester Joan's car keys, if not Joan herself.
“Humm,” Moorman mused. “Subjective versus objective…”
“It tends to be more inflammatory than probative, your honor,” Higgins said in reference to the prior convictions, which he seemed to want suppressed. But at the same time, public defender Higgins wanted to use the high blood alcohol levels to show that his client “had no mental comprehension as to what was going on. And we’d stipulate to the prior convictions, but to have an officer come in and say ‘Here’s what she did two years ago’ …the more of that kind of thing we let in the more inflammatory it gets.”
Mr. Sequeira said that the priors became even more relevant because the conduct in this case was so similar — running into a bridge in Fort Bragg, a tree in Mendocino, a car in Ukiah. He wanted to bring in Officer Murray of the Ukiah PD and a civilian witness who saw the defendant get in her car at the movie theater on State Street, and another witness on Laws Avenue who saw three cars take evasive action to avoid a collision with Joan and she careened through Ukiah's placid streets. He brought up that Joan had been in a Lucky Deuce program in San Luis Obispo, had transferred it up here “and the same conduct continued.”
Moorman said, “Do you have a cop coming from there?”
“I do,” Sequiera answered. “It was a unique case.”
“There’s other witnesses,” Higgins complained. “Ten of them, I think, and we’re having trouble evaluating them, especially the retired cops. There’s been an inability to talk to some of them.”
“Do you have a way defense can get hold of them?” Moorman asked.
“We do,” Sequiera said, “and I’ll be happy to hand them over to counsel.”
The judge smiled. “Why don’t you two have a conference about this right now?”
The conference turned into a quarrel.
“I’m ordering you to meet sometime today and verify that the witnesses on the list are available,” Moorman finally said. “Now, let’s return to this other issue, the motion that the method of proof [bringing up a DUI 16 years ago] is not relevant. I feel that the underlying events are extremely relevant. It’s the first chapter of a five-chapter book, and this is a particularly egregious example. We have Ms. Rainville driving her car in San Francisco, and …well, it is, I think, valid that by now she should be aware of the risks of driving under the influence — we’re talking about her being repeatedly warned about facing murder charges and the risks involved. Now, if you’d like me to give a limiting order [as to how much weight a prior that old should be given], I’d be happy to do it but I don’t know about if it’d be listened to [by the jury].”
“We can develop that thought,” Higgins said.
“Okay, what about the experts? Prosecution has one.”
“I think it’s inflammatory,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t go to Ms. Rainville’s knowledge of what she was doing.”
Sequiera said, “It goes back to the problem of a driving under the influence and the application of force — how much more likely are you to kill or injure someone when your blood alcohol goes up. This was resolved at the prelim.”
The expert at the prelim, Matt Kirsten of the Department of Justice, who specializes in interpreting blood-alcohol test results, cited a study that found a person driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 was 45 times more likely to be in an accident than a sober driver. The judge allowed the expert’s return for the trial.
The two lawyers went off to go over the witness list, and jury selection was set to begin on Monday. We hope they find some way of getting Ms. Rainville off the roads before she kills somebody — taking her license and giving her jail time and heavy fines doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe DA Eyster is onto something progressive here. Stand by for updates. It should prove more interesting than the Brutocao embezzlement case.
That one, by the way, was formally declared hung Wednesday, 10-2 in favor of the conviction of defendant Chris Mulcahy, a Healdsburg winery owner who was charged with forging signatures on 57 checks while working as the finance officer for Brutocao Cellars in Hopland. The 10-2 vote was the same for all 57 charges. The results are under review by DA Dave Eyster and defense attorney Justin Petersen. Superior Court Judge John Behnke has scheduled a follow-up hearing for next Wednesday.