Twenty-one different courts in California have established Veterans Courts, specifically tailored to serve, rehabilitate, and support veterans in need. Similar to the Military Diversion option, the intent of Veterans Court is to provide treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of jail time and a lifelong conviction. Veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), substance abuse issues, or other psychological problems attributable to their service are eligible.
When we take your case, our goal is to help you keep your criminal record clean and help you get the right treatment to move on successfully and healthy in your life. So many veterans and families have lamented that after volunteering to give so much, they have returned home only to be misunderstood and generally set up for failure. As discussed in a prior article, the complications and symptoms of PTSD and TBI can sometimes form a complete defense. However, when that defense is not available, Veterans Court is one ideal option for combat veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges in California.
While PTSD, TBI, or other remnants of war do not themselves make anyone “dangerous,” if improperly recognized and treated, it can lead to involvement with the law. For veteran defendants not eligible for military diversion pursuant to P.C. 1001.80, Veterans Court is a great option. Unlike P.C. 1001.80, veterans may be accepted into Veterans Court even if they have been charged with a felony, were granted diversion in past, or even when there has been a prior conviction for the same or similar offense.
Each Veterans Court is a completely separate courtroom, with one dedicated judge, where only veterans’ cases are heard when the court is in session. In our experience, the judges in Veterans Court truly understand the unique circumstances and challenges facing combat veterans returning to civilian life.
In order to be accepted into Veterans Court, you must first plead guilty to the charges. However, you will not do prison or jail time, and upon successful completion of the program, you may be given the opportunity to withdraw your plea and your case can be dismissed entirely or expunged pursuant to P.C. 1203.4. At the end, you will even be provided with referrals for vocational training, education, and/or job placement services.
Veterans Court is not simply a “get out of jail free” card. Rather, it is a great vehicle for evaluation and treatment of the symptoms of PTSD, TBI, anxiety or depression issues that may have not previously been properly diagnosed and treated. It involves close cooperation and supervision with a multidisciplinary team committed to your rehabilitation and treatment. This includes regular appearances before a judge, probation officer, Veteran Mentor, VA Justice Outreach Specialist, mental health professionals, and case manager from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The treatment is “reality-based,” meaning the requirements should not be overly-burdensome, but rather tailored to your specific needs and non-adversarial. In this way, the built-in support network and exposure to a wide range of services can have a transformative impact upon your life, allowing you to return to the community in a more advantageous place than before the criminal charges.
These special courts were authorized by California Penal Code § 1170.9 but each County creates its own court. However, the specific qualifications and requirements are similar throughout California.
Typically, an honorable discharge is a requirement, but some exceptions are granted, especially if you have full service-connected disability ratings with the VA. Sex offenses (P.C. 290) and gang offenses are generally ineligible. Violent and serious felonies are considered, but only on a case-by-case basis.
Courts once required that the mental health or substance abuse issues have a nexus with the military service. However, that can be difficult to determine. Thus, most Veterans Courts accept veterans from any era who presently have qualifying psychological or substance abuse afflictions.
After your defense counsel moves for acceptance into Veterans Court, initial evaluations will be conducted by VA Veterans Justice Outreach specialists, Probation Officer, and other members of the Veterans Court team. Each will provide their recommendation, but the judge will have the final say as to acceptance into the program.
In most cases, the judge will sit down and meet with your defense attorney and all members of the team before accepting the veteran. The more informed your attorney is about your background and circumstances in this meeting, the better he can present your case and advocate for your acceptance.
While you will be placed on formal probation for approximately 5 years, the treatment program itself will last approximately 18 months, with some misdemeanors being only 12 months. Once you complete the program, your probation will generally also be terminated at the same time. Probation will include random drug and alcohol testing and unannounced home visits. In addition to individual counseling sessions and work with a mentor, you will typically be required to attend self-help/recovery support group meetings. Most courts have an initial 14-day “window period” wherein you may withdraw your Veteran’s Court plea and go back to the normal criminal prosecution process.
The environment is quite structured and incorporates many aspects of military life. Veterans Courts are typically divided into four tiered “Phases,” decreasing in strenuousness of the requirements over the span of about 18 months. However, the initial phase, “Phase I,” will be an “intensive” stage (approximately 4 months), involving weekly court meetings, a full evaluation/assessment to determine a treatment plan, compliance with that plan, regular meetings with your probation officer, and with your VA liaison, as well as drug testing. “Progress Reports” will be given to the judge at each appearance. If you have complied with treatment, showed up to all appointments, and had no positive drug tests, you generally will advance to a less-strenuous stage.
The Court is looking for humility and a willingness to engage. The more you can show that from the beginning, the quicker you will move up through the phases. Both the Riverside and Orange County Veterans Court holds their participants to “three simple rules”: “1. Be Honest, 2. Show up, 3. Try Hard.” Generally, the professionals involved in the Veterans Court have one goal: to help the veteran get better and move forward to a happier, healthier, and more productive life as soon as possible.
Phase II (approximately 3 months) will generally follow the original treatment plan, but have fewer weekly requirements and be more tailored to your specific needs that are continually reassessed as you progress. After successfully advancing through Phase II, you will proceed to Phase III (approximately 5 months), then to the final phase, Phase IV for the remainder of the program. As you progress through the phases, court appearances, drug testing, group meetings, and probation meetings will decrease. The final phase will last approximately 6 months. This phase is the least intrusive, and serves as a transition stage to the life you will lead after Veterans Court. However, in Phase IV you will still need to complete some treatment requirements set by your counselors.
There is no right to Veterans Court. Much discretion is involved and the selection process is strict. Thus, in order to gain acceptance into Veterans Court in a “borderline” case, such as a repeat offense, serious felony, or a prior failed diversion, it is important to have an attorney experienced in what it takes to succeed in Veterans Court. It is important that your personal, military, and mental health history is thoroughly packaged and presented. You and your attorney must demonstrate that you are suitable for the program and will enthusiastically engage in this process.
As a Marine Corps veteran, Aaron Meyer focuses his work on advocating for veterans. He knows what returning combat veterans often face and has regularly fought for them in California and Military courts. If you want to explore whether you or a loved one can qualify for Veterans Court or what other options are available to fight your case, call Aaron Meyer at 949-732-1419.
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