The Real Rich Criminals of Orange County

After serving in West Court in Westminster, California for twelve years, I was transferred to Harbor Court in Newport Beach. The area surrounding West Court is one of the poorest in the Orange County. The area surrounding Harbor Court is some of the richest in the country, if not the world.  

 This area is the setting of television series, “The O.C.” This is where the “Real Housewives of Orange County” live. (Some of these famous housewives have appeared in my court.  They were better dressed and had more makeup than the other criminals.)

My transfer to Newport Beach was an interesting transition.

“These people” 

In my first week at Harbor Court I had a rich woman who pled guilty to driving under the influence. Afterward, she looked around at the other people who had just pled guilty, and asked, “Do I have to go to the alcohol program with these people?

“You obviously don’t know who I am”

 In my first week in Newport Beach, a rich self-important criminal defendant tried to intimidate me by saying, “You obviously don’t know who I am.” I replied, “You obviously don’t understand who I am.”

Shoplifting: community service versus fines

 Instead of poor mothers stealing baby food and diapers, like in West Court, I had bored rich housewives stealing thousand-dollar Gucci purses or a single ear ring for the thrill of it. In West Court, whenever I tried to impose a fine, the poor people requested community service instead. In Newport Beach, whenever I tried to impose large fines, the rich folks calmly replied, “I’ll pay it today.” 

After hearing “I’ll pay it today,” dozens of times, I realized that paying a fine meant nothing to these rich criminals. Fines were not a way of getting their attention.  I was also much more sympathetic to the poor people who were stealing the necessities of life than the rich people who were stealing luxuries or shoplifting merely for the adrenaline rush.

Accordingly, after a few weeks of dealing with rich criminals, I decided to impose community service on everyone.  For example, a first-time shoplifting case would be 40 hours of “volunteer” service. The rich people squealed like stuck pigs.  I repeatedly heard, “Do you know how valuable my time is?” I quickly nipped those complaints in the bud by saying, “This is in lieu of jail.” 

Community service is the great equalizer.  It helps and hurts both the rich and the poor.  It is “equal justice.” Plus, service is good for the community as well as the individual.

Now, when people ask me where I am assigned, I reply, “Newport Beach, with the rich criminals.”

Public Defenders are not for rich people 

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that everyone is entitled to be represented by a lawyer in a criminal case. This includes indigent defendants who cannot afford their own an attorney.  (Gideon v. Wainwright, (372 U.S. 335 (1963)) This was a great landmark case.

We are all familiar the Miranda warnings on television:  “You have the right to an attorney before and during questioning.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed free of charge to represent you.” Thus, most jurisdictions have Public Defender Offices to assist the poor in defending themselves.

The public defenders have a difficult and thankless job.  They are scorned by the public for representing “criminals.” They are often disrespected by their own clients, who yell at them, spit on them, punch them, and sue them. I sometimes hear defendants object, “I don’t want a public defender, I want a real lawyer.”

 Whenever I have a very difficult decision, or an out of control defendant, I always appoint the public defender.I am grateful to them for what they do.  

I had a well-dressed man in my misdemeanor arraignment court in Newport Beach who “insisted” on having a public defender. I asked him if he had a job and how much he earned a month.

(A little background information. In most cases where I appoint the public defender, the criminal defendant earns between 0 and $2000 per month. If the defendant is supporting a family, I will appoint the public defender if they are earning about $4000 per month or less.)

 When I asked the man in front of me how much he earned a month he said, “Twenty-five.” 

I inquired, “Twenty-five hundred?”

“No, twenty-five thousand.” 

I said, “You don’t qualify.”

He responded, “I pay taxes, and so I should get a government lawyer.”


 I had an uppity seventy-year old married couple with tailored attire standing before me. The husband was charged domestic violence against his wife.  When I said he needed an attorney, he answered, “I want a public defender.”

Judge: “Are you working now?” 

Defendant: “Now, I’m retired.” 

Judge: “Do you own a home?”

Defendant: “Yes.”

Judge:  “How much is it worth?”

Defendant:  “Over three million.”

Judge: “I’m sorry, but the public defender is for poor people, and you are not poor.”

I continued his case, so he could retain a lawyer.  The couple huffed, and they puffed, and they left the courtroom.

Now that I am presiding in Newport Beach, I sometimes feel like I am in a reality show entitled, “The Real Rich Criminals of Orange County.”

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