Jeff Jardine

Did deputy DA get special treatment?

It was the sentence many defense attorneys would want for a client pleading guilty to misdemeanor drunken driving and hit-and-run charges.

A day after Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Sandra Bishop returned to her job handling DUI cases, among other things, she was given 10 days in jail for her own conviction.

She was fined $1,500 and given time to apply to a program that would allow her to do community service or home detention.

While some defense attorneys debate whether she got off rather lightly, they're not complaining because it could conceivably benefit their clients in the future.

Frank Carson, a criminal defense attorney in Modesto, said it isn't unusual for clients to get sentences of at least 30 days under circumstances similar to Bishop's.

He said he'll use Bishop's case in the future, citing California Rules of the Courts, Section 4.410(7), which calls for uniformity in sentencing.

"If we follow that rule, yeah, (Bishop's) case can have some impact," Carson said. "If you don't have uniformity, it undermines the public's confidence in our justice system."

Just after midnight April 13, police cited Bishop for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent and hit-and-run.

She hit a pickup near her home, and her breath test reading was0.26 percent, more than three times the legal limit.

Robert Chase, another defense attorney in Modesto, believes the sentence probably was appropriate because Bishop had no prior record, and, he assumes, she had insurance to cover the property damage to the pickup. He's seen clients get as little as 48 hours in jail, and some get five to seven days more because they had higher blood alcohol levels for simple DUIs with no hit-and-run charges.

"It's not grossly inappropriate for what we'd like to be working toward in the first place," Chase said.

Like Carson, Chase will hold Bishop's 10-day sentence as a trump card in cases where the DA asks for longer jail time.

"I will be bringing it," Chase said.

Understand, the defense attorneys I spoke with all said they like and respect Bishop. They said she's a good attorney and a good person who made an honest mistake — the kind they defend people for all the time.

Some, however, question the DA's decision to assign her to a specialty court that handles drug, alcohol and domestic violence cases when she returned to work.

Bishop herself must take a nine-month alcohol education class as part of her plea deal, routine among first-time offenders. She is not now handling jury cases. Her workload includes cases in which defendants are returning to court to prove they are following their rehabilitation programs.

Judge Susan Siefkin welcomed Bishop into her court last week.

"She's a very fine attorney," Siefkin said. "I don't see it as being a problem. We believe in rehabilitation in this courtroom."

District Attorney Birgit Fladager declined to discuss Bishop's case.

"Under the circumstances, I don't think it is appropriate for me to comment on reasons why she might be assigned to certain caseloads," Fladager wrote in an e-mail.

Bishop also declined to comment.

The courthouse has buzzed with the question of whether Bishop received preferential treatment throughout her case.

Instead of being booked at the county jail, she was released on a citation for a variety of reasons, Modesto police Sgt. Craig Gundlach said.

Someone at her home was willing to sign a document stating they could care for her there, he said. She had no outstanding warrants. And it was a misdemeanor case in which no one was injured.

"Sandra met our criteria (for a citation)," Gundlach said.

From Jan. 1 through April 30, Modesto police made 255 DUI arrests; 92 of those arrested were cited and similarly released, he said.

Bishop's car was not towed because it had no evidentiary value. They knew she'd hit the pickup, and her car was in her driveway when police arrived, Gundlach said.

"We don't tow for punishment," he said.

There was no public reporting of her incident — not by the police, not by the district attorney. Bee reporter Susan Herendeen, who covers the courts, heard about Bishop's case through the grapevine about a month after the incident and then questioned Chief Deputy DA John Goold about it.

He declined to say whether Bishop was on a leave of absence, something other agencies generally reveal whenever officials encounter legal problems.

Chief Deputy DA David Harris had filed the charges April 17, and turned Bishop's case over to the state attorney general's office for prosecution.

Bishop opted not to appear in court, endorsing her attorney to appear on her behalf. The plea was negotiated by her attorney, Lewis Wentz, and Deputy Attorney General David Lowe, then accepted by Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver.

The defense attorneys? They have no problem with any of that. Nor are they troubled by a mere 10-day sentence for DUI and a hit-and-run by a deputy district attorney, Carson said.

"Some (attorneys) have speculated that is the new benchmark," he said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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