Veterans coming home from war face unique and sometimes daunting challenges. Statistics paint the picture in stark terms. According to data released by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in 2013, the suicide rate among veterans is higher than the rate of combat deaths. Unfortunately, some of the difficulties faced by veterans translate to drug and mental health problems that end up in court. In Sacramento, the court has responded to this problem by creating a veteran’s court designed specifically for veterans and the challenges they face in the criminal justice system.
To be eligible a veteran must satisfy the requirements of CA Penal Code section 1170.9. For example, a veteran must show that he or she committed the offense as a result of sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems stemming from service in the United States military. A veteran must plead guilty or no contest before allowed into the court. Veterans who qualify for the court can be sentenced to rehabilitative and mental health treatment programs and the program typically lasts 12 to 18 months. Those who commit sex offenses, participate in gang activity or arson are ineligible. Those with more than two DUIs may not enter the program.
The relief granted if a vet successfully completes the program is very powerful. If the court determines it is in the interests of justice the court can craft an order to dismiss the court action pursuant to 1170.9 (h). With the exception of applying to law enforcement jobs, once dismissed under this law, the veteran is not obligated to disclose the action, arrest or conviction and may honestly indicate they have not been arrested when the only arrest concerns the dismissed case. In the judge’s discretion, the court can even order police and court records to be sealed.
The relief is not perfect. For example, a dismissal does not authorize a veteran to own or possess firearms if the offense would prevent that person from owning or possessing a firearm. A DNA sample may remain on file. A prosecutor can still plead and prove the case as a prior conviction if a veteran picks up a new charge and the conviction may still be considered by DMV in some actions to revoke or suspend a license.
The relief available through veteran’s court can save lives and have long lasting protections for veterans looking for work and applying for professional licenses. Any veteran or family member of a veteran facing criminal charges should be asking about veteran’s court.