A private investigator stands to lose his license and has been ordered to pay a $2,500 fine for passing himself off as a police officer while poking around Modesto, looking for leads in the Laci Peterson murder investigation.
The punishment for Scott Bernstein of Wesley Hills, N.Y., includes three years of probation; he may be able to make arrangements for supervision on the East Coast.
In Stanislaus County Superior Court on Monday, Bernstein, 47, pleaded no contest to one felony count of impersonating a police officer, after a prosecutor dropped four felony counts and five misdemeanor counts.
Bernstein is due to return to court Friday to discuss the terms of his probation.
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Deputy District Attorney David Radford said the negoti-
ated sentence avoided the cost and time of a trial, which was scheduled to begin Tuesday and was expected to last a week.
"He probably wouldn't have received much jail time anyway," he said, noting that Bernstein did not have a criminal record.
Attorney Robert Wynne of Fresno, who withdrew from the case shortly before Bernstein entered his plea, said he believes his former client was charged because prosecutors wanted to protect their case against Scott Peterson.
"He just got his nose in the wrong case," Wynne said of the Bernstein.
The private investigator, president of Falcon Investigations Inc., could not be reached for comment. Under New York state law, the felony conviction makes him ineligible to hold a private investigator's license.
The case began when Lt. Mark Smith, an investigator with the district attorney's office, spotted Bernstein on Court TV.
The private investigator was holding up booking photos of local residents while talking to host Catherine Crier.
Such photos are routinely released to the media if a defendant is in custody. If a defendant is released on bail or on his or her own recognizance, the photos are controlled documents that can be given only to sworn officers who present credentials and sign a form.
The district attorney's office filed charges against Bernstein in August, during the third month of Peterson's doublemurder trial in Redwood City. Peterson was convicted and sentenced to death for killing his wife and their unborn son, Conner.
Bernstein at first faced 11counts accusing him of impersonating an officer, fraudulently using a badge and simulating an official inquiry from June 24 to July 9, 2004.
In April, at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, Judge John G. Whiteside held Bernstein to answer to 10 counts. They stemmed from three incidents, according to Smith and nine other witnesses who testified during the hearing.
The incidents involved:
BOOKING PHOTOS — Bernstein received 12 booking photos from the Sheriff's Department because clerks believed he was a federal agent. Someone claiming to be with the "U.S. Fugitive Task Force" faxed a request for photos before Bernstein showed up at the counter to collect the mug shots. Bernstein allegedly flashed a badge upon arrival.
INTERVIEWS — Bernstein allegedly wore a badge when he approached Evelyn Taberna at her Modesto home, and Taberna's daughter Sarah Taberna at work. Mother and daughter believed that Bernstein was a Modesto police detective working on the Peterson case. One of the booking mugs that Bernstein received was of Sarah Taberna, who had pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property after police found blank checks — belonging to Scott and Laci Peterson — in Taberna's possession.
PAWN SHOP VISIT — At The Pawn Shop in Modesto, Bernstein allegedly wore a badge that read "New York Fugitive Task Force" and said he was working on a national sting operation. He was interested in a Croton watch that was similar to one that Laci Peterson tried to sell on eBay, an online auction site. The store owner called police because inquiries about the Peterson case made him nervous.
Radford said Bernstein's plea of no contest was for impersonating a police officer at The Pawn Shop.
The deputy district attorney said both sides agreed to focus on that count when they negotiated the deal.
"It didn't really matter which count it was," Radford said. "The outcome would have been the same."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.