Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Judicial system fails Latino family

Mike Sanchez was a victim of hit and run, now his family suffers the consequences of a failed district attorney
By Adrian Perez, Publisher

Publisher's Note:  After much pressure, current Cloverdale District Attorney has agreed to have an impartial investigation conducted with oversight from the Attorney General's office.

Cloverdale is a rural community of a little over 8 thousand residents, of which 28-percent of them is Latino and whose economic contributions to this region are measurably significant.  The town’s picturesque surroundings make it ideal for locals to stay, or return, and retire.  Such was the case for 83-year old Miguel “Mike” Sanchez, a retired long-time railroad employee, who had more recently become known as a “green-thumb” gardener.

Like many who migrated to the United States, Mike came seeking a better life in 1951, landing a job with Northwestern Pacific Railroad as a track realignment worker.  His job essentially prevented train derailments, saving the rail line and their clients hundreds of millions of dollars.  He and his wife moved to Cloverdale in 1966, where they raised their family and in 1990, Mike retired, turning his attention to gardening and landscaping.

On the morning of December 27, 2010, Mike had finished working on a friend’s garden, one of the many he tended throughout the community.  While crossing the street on his way home, he was struck by a vehicle, whose driver failed to stop, an obvious felony hit and run.  The driver fled, leaving Mike on the street, bleeding, with shocked onlookers quickly reaching to call 911 or running to the nearby Police station to report the accident.

At the hospital, doctors determined that Mike had suffered broken bones in his hip, leg and arm, and also had attained a serious skull fracture.  Although he briefly regained consciousness, doctors made it clear to the Sanchez family that Mike’s injuries were too severe and on December 31, 2010 the popular and well-liked long-term resident of Cloverdale died.

Being a small community has its pluses with witnesses immediately describing the truck to police.  One even offered a tip on where they could find the truck.  Within an hour, the suspected vehicle was located in the high school parking lot and its driver at basketball practice.

Upon questioning the teen, identified as Mitch Carlson by people who knew him, admitted being guilty of the felony hit and run, telling police he ran because he was scared.  However, what happened next has puzzled the Sanchez family, the police, and the residents of Cloverdale, casting a cloud over the concept of “…and justice for all.”

The Damaged Ego of a District Attorney

Stephan Passalacqua was 39-years old when he took office as the state’s youngest district attorney in 2002, defeating incumbent Mike Mullins, who was also Passalacqua’s boss.  The transition between the two was smooth, with Mullins providing all the information and assistance Passalacqua needed to assume his new role as Sonoma County’s District Attorney.   Among his newly acquired staff was an attorney named Jill Ravitch, who became an immediate critic of her boss, feeling he lacked leadership skills to manage the District Attorney’s office.

In 2006, she challenged and nearly beat Passalacqua during his reelection bid.  She left her post to work for another District Attorney, but in 2010, she challenged him again, only this time she garnered 55 percent of the vote, enough to become the new Sonoma County District Attorney.  Passalacqua did not take his loss well and it has been documented that he was not very cooperative during the transition.

Ravitch, in her campaign message, told voters that Passalacqua had “one of the lowest conviction rates in the state.  He lost support of law enforcement officers, of the defense bar.  He’s not a trial attorney, he’s never tried a case…”

A Question About Which DA is Responsible

The day Mike Sanchez was stuck by a hit and run driver, Passalacqua was serving his final week as District Attorney.   It was his staff member, Bud McMahon who told the Cloverdale police to stop the investigation, that “the case was over and it’d be a waste of time to continue” their investigation.  Apparently, unbeknownst to the Cloverdale police or the Sanchez family, it is believed Passalacqua had reached a resolution in juvenile court with the alleged teen driver, Mitch Carlson.  Notice of this resolution was not made known to the Sanchez family until they received a letter dated January 3, 2011, which was addressed to the attention of the deceased.

“How could this have happened?” asked family members.  How could a juvenile court hearing and a resolution be conducted within two-days of the accident?  Why were they not consulted?  Did the DA know that Mike had deceased?

Unfamiliar with the legal issues involved, the Sanchez family obtained the services of Sacramento prominent attorney Melinda Guzman.  In trying to make sense of what had happened, Guzman began conducting an investigation, but encountered no cooperation from those involved, citing the juvenile’s rights to confidentiality.

Guzman asked to meet with Passalacqua, but he told her since he was no longer the DA that she should speak to the new DA, Ravitch.  Ravitch refused to discuss the case, citing the juvenile’s confidentiality, but did agree to look into the matter.  In the meantime, McMahon was promoted by Ravitch to be her Deputy District Attorney.  He too did not answer questions Guzman posed on behalf of the family.

Investigative Reporting Proves Shocking Chain of Events

In California, the victim and the victim’s family have a right to face the accused at a judicial hearing.  Additionally, it is incumbent for the DA to notify all parties of such a hearing.  Yet, a hearing and resolution took place a day before Mike died, with no one talking about what had transpired behind closed doors or why the Cloverdale Police were told stop investigating the accident.

It took the savvy information gathering techniques of a reporter from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to provide the Sanchez family, and the community, an account of the events that took place after Mike Sanchez was struck by Carlson’s vehicle.  This is what was found:  Police arrested Mitch Carlson while at basketball practice; a senior, Carlson is a star basketball player for the school; Carlson’s parents are prominent in the community and active in the school’s booster’s club; Carlson was represented at his hearing by Joseph Passalacqua, the DA’s brother; and, Carlson will probably be sentenced to no more than 3 years probation and numerous hours of community service.

“A typical hit-and-run case could take three weeks to reach trial and two more weeks to reach disposition,” juvenile court public defender Steve Pettit told the Press Democrat, admitting he was not aware of the Carlson case.  “A resolution within a few days of an incident is rare, but not impossible.”

Is this the way juvenile court is handled in Sonoma County?  Was Carlson given special treatment because of his parents?  Or, was it the action of a spiteful Passalacqua for having lost his reelection bid to Ravitch?  What about the victim’s rights?

This week, former DA Passalacqua wrote a letter to the editor of the Press Democrat stating he was unaware of the circumstances or that a juvenile court hearing took place.  He also stated that he had a policy of not handling his brother Joseph’s cases.  Unfortunately, many in the community have insinuated the Passalacqua was known to make sweetheart deals with those who helped him get into office.  Is this the case in regards to the Carlson family?

There is no question that something extremely wrong has happened in Cloverdale and it would only be proper for an independent investigation to take place by either the State Bar Association or the State Attorney General.  It is an incident that many would expect to have occurred in the Deep South, or even in today’s Arizona, but not in a liberal community like Cloverdale, California.  Today, there are no answers for the Sanchez family and while they laid their patriarch to rest, Mitch Carlson was given a chance for freedom, life, and a memory of how the legal system can be manipulated when you have the right people working for you.


  1. This tragedy is sad and being used by the incoming DA Jill Ravitch to booster her own reputation. Prayers for both families. Please don't let Jill Ravitch poison your views:
    first of all Ravitch is the spiteful person here. She ran a horrible campaign and was told by an audience member at one debate to stop her attacks on Stephan Passalacqua. He is fluent in Spanish and promoted a Latina, Diane Gomez (an out lesbian) to be his Assistant DA.
    At no time did Mullins invite the newly elected DA in to "transition" Stephan stepped up and didn't whine either. Ravitch was knocking on the door in July 2010 and made life miserable for everyone in the office. Her demands and false claims of Passalacqua "not cooperationg" were ridiculous. With what? By November he had set everything in order and she is now in office and within days disrupting, accusing and blaming others which is her track record if you check in Ukiah and under three DA's.
    Ms Ravitch is terrific in the courtroom, but she is not a team player. Over The years she accused people in the DA's office of harassment, sexual discrimination, genderr discrimination and blamed her inability to function well on the fact that she was a lesbian. Ravitch is the jealous. bitter, frustrated person in this little charade.
    It was Ravitch who promoted her friend, Bud McMahon to be her Assistant DA He was in charge of the Juvenile division at the time of the tragic accident. Go talk to Ravitch's sidekick McMahon!
    As to the PD's "savvy" journalist Paul Payne. He is an ambulance-chasing headline-seeking basic reporter. Journalist never! He insinuates that a family member and a wonderful, nice man like Stephan Passalcqua are in cohorts. Juveniles typically are not jailed. They are ordered to do probation and pay for their crimes other than jail time
    Stephan knew nothing aobut the case. Just watch what is going to happen in the coming months: Ravitch will complain, dirupt the office and blame, blame, blame.
    Wake up!
    She's an unhappy, spiteful person who finger-points at Stephan Passalacqua. Why? And where are her programs and history with working with Latinos and kids and elders like Stephan Passalacqua?

  2. Thanks for post Mr Adrian Perez

    These matters of the Judicial System, Law and Courts, etc ... are of extraordinary importance.

    It is necessary to follow the decisions of Courts, the Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District, etc ...

    This last court Headquartered in San Francisco will decide on SB1070, the new law of Arizona with a lot of "Racial Profiling", Racism and Hatred.



  3. The publishers note is wrong It is not the Cloverdale District Attorney. It is the Sonoma County District Attorney.