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A Councilman Who's 'Tough On Crime' Was Convicted Of A Felony For Striking His Girlfriend In The Face

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A photo of City Councilman Eric Negrete hangs on the wall at Victorville City Hall.
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By Tom Dreisbach and Libby Denkmann

Eric Negrete first ran for a seat on the Victorville City Council in 2014, saying the council needed to focus on "public safety priorities that keep us safe from break-ins and violent crimes."

Since he won his election, Negrete, a civilian project manager at the Ft. Irwin National Training Center, has stood out for his vocal opposition to California's approach to immigration law and criminal justice reform.

Negrete has called Senate Bill 54, the so-called "Sanctuary State" law, "traitorous" and "anti-American." And he's strongly criticized Proposition 47, which re-classifies certain non-violent felonies as misdemeanors.

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"When you reduce a felony to a misdemeanor and you've got homeless people violating all kinds of laws," Negrete said in a Dec. 2017 City Council meeting, "now those laws really don't count as much as they used to."

Negrete has been much less outspoken about his own felony conviction -- a plea he agreed to after he was arrested on charges of domestic violence.

Later, after completing two out of his three years of probation, Negrete appealed to the court to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor.

Negrete didn't use Prop. 47 to get his conviction reduced, voters didn't pass that into law until Nov. 2014 (and his case wouldn't have qualified, since Prop. 47 is largely focused on minor drug offenses and theft).

But he did use another provision of state law known as 17(B), telling the court that the felony in his record, and probation restrictions, would cost him a good job, court records show.

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He asked for, and got, a second chance.

THE INCIDENT

According to San Bernardino County Superior Court records, Negrete was charged in February 2009 with felony kidnapping, as well as two misdemeanor charges of battery.

The charges stemmed from an incident on Feb. 14, 2009, Valentine's Day, when, prosecutors alleged, Negrete committed domestic violence against his then-girlfriend.

In response to a California Public Records Act request, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department released the circumstances surrounding Negrete's arrest.

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It was just after 1 a.m. on 7th Street, a commercial corridor in Victorville.

"Negrete struck victim in face," the department said in a statement, "the victim ran and Negrete chased and forced victim into the vehicle."

Judge Bridgid McCann stated during one court hearing, "alcohol was one of the main factors in the offense being committed."

The victim did not want prosecutors to pursue charges, other court records indicate.

At his arraignment four days after the arrest, Negrete appeared via video link from county jail, and pleaded not guilty to the three charges. The court set bail at $250,000.

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Days later, Negrete agreed to a plea deal.

Prosecutors dropped the three initial charges, one of which would have counted as a strike, and Negrete pleaded no contest to a felony charge of Inflict Corporal Injury to Spouse or Cohabitant, according to court records.

In court, Judge McCann asked Negrete: "Do you understand that a no contest plea is exactly the same thing as a guilty plea?"

His answer: "Yes, ma'am."

She continued: "Understand it's not a mind game. You don't get to say later that you didn't plead guilty?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

He was sentenced to 120 days in jail, with the option for work release. Negrete ultimately served 69 days in jail, according to Deputy Olivia Bozek, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Negrete also received three years' probation and was instructed to attend 52 weekly classes for batterers. He was prohibited from possessing or drinking alcohol during his probation, among other terms.

Reporters from NPR and KPCC/LAist discovered Negrete's conviction as part of a routine check of public records for a story about the debate over sanctuary cities and SB54.

NEGRETE'S RESPONSE

When KPCC first approached Negrete to discuss the case, he responded in an email:

"The family matter you are referring to was a misunderstanding that was resolved some years ago. My family supports me."

KPCC then asked Negrete to clarify why he called the incident a "misunderstanding," and sent him a copy of the court records from the case.

Days later, he responded with a lengthier statement.

"The 2009 case involved an unfortunate incident between my wife and myself," he wrote. Negrete and the victim were not wed at the time of the incident, according to the court records, but subsequently got married.

(KPCC/LAist was unable to reach the victim in this case for comment herself, and generally does not disclose the identity of victims of domestic violence.)

"Obviously, we are still together, and the issues within our marriage have been resolved," he wrote. "On the advice of my counsel, I entered into a plea deal which resulted in my agreement to plead guilty to certain charges."

In the statement, Negrete wrote that he and his now-wife, "have sought each other's forgiveness and addressed the issues that led to this unfortunate incident. Those issues are now in the past and nothing precludes me from holding public office."

His statement concluded by suggesting that reporting on his conviction was politically motivated.

"It is unfortunate that in this era of search and destroy politics and journalism, that my opponent and her allies within the press seek to open this very personal matter and create public harm to my children, my wife, and myself," Negrete wrote.

A SURPRISE TO CITY OFFICIALS

Until now, there does not appear to be any news coverage of Negrete's arrest or conviction. A search of news articles from the last decade found no mention of the case. And city officials said it was news to them.

"We just learned of this information," Sue Jones, spokesperson for the City of Victorville, wrote in response to inquiries from KPCC/LAist. "I have nothing further to say at this time."

Victorville Mayor Gloria Garcia declined to comment.

One reason the conviction may have gone unnoticed: it was reduced to a misdemeanor.

In Jan. 2011, two years into his three-year probation, Negrete petitioned the court to end his probation early and have his felony conviction converted to a misdemeanor.

His attorney filed a petition based on Penal Code 17(b).

To explain what that is, you have to understand a term in California law called a "wobbler."

Wobblers straddle the fence between felonies and misdemeanors. Courts can decide how to charge wobblers depending on the details of the crime and the history of the offender, said Robert Weisberg, a law professor and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

"Because the penal code is full of all kinds of confusing and vague criminal statutes, and some of them are deemed to be on the borderline," Weisberg said.

It's a common practice, especially for first-time offenders, to ask a judge to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor using PC 17(b). Weisberg pointed out that a simple Google search brings up many Southern California law firms specializing in this area of law.

"And these firms offer a menu of services," Weisberg said. "What they emphasize is they're going to help you avoid future consequences in terms of limitations on employment, limitations on gun possession, limitations on voting."

In Negrete's case, he asked Judge Eric Nakata to retroactively reduce the felony domestic violence charge to a misdemeanor.

When deciding whether to grant a PC 17(b) petition, judges generally consider the defendant's prior criminal history, the severity of the offense, and whether the defendant had any probation violations, according to John Rogers, a defense attorney in Newport Beach.

"When someone is a first-time offender, suffered no probation violations, and they are eligible, the judge will usually grant the request," Rogers said.

Negrete and his attorney argued in court that he was a good candidate for relief.

"From this experience, I have grown and taken personal responsibility for my actions," Negrete said in a letter addressed to the judge that is part of the court's file. "I hurt people from my mistake and realize I can't change what is already done, but I can make the best of the future."

A transcript of court proceedings shows Negrete's attorney stated, "from what I understand, [the victim] wasn't seriously injured."

[Note: It's not clear from the limited information released about the arrest by the San Bernardino County Sheriff what the extent of the victim's injuries were. The District Attorney's office said they are considering KPCC/LAist's request for further details about the circumstances surrounding the arrest. After Negrete characterized the incident as a misunderstanding in his email, KPCC asked him to make a copy of the arrest report available. He did not respond to that request.]

When he made his request for the felony to be reduced to a misdemeanor, Negrete asked the court to end his probation early so he could travel across state lines for work.

"Without the requested relief," Negrete wrote the judge, "I will face unemployment."

The Deputy District Attorney at the proceeding did not object to reducing the charge. But she did object to ending Negrete's probation early.

In the end, the judge sided with Negrete. His felony was reduced to a misdemeanor and his probation ended.

A RUN FOR OFFICE

Three years later, in 2014, Negrete ran for Victorville City Council as a political newcomer. Negrete cited his service in the U.S. Air Force in the 1990s, received backing from a local realtors association, and described himself in campaign materials as "a leader who will get results" and "a voice for the family." That November, he won a seat with nearly 30% of the vote.

Now, Negrete is running for re-election. Ten other candidates are vying with him for two open seats.

He told the Victor Valley Daily Press that his platform boils down to "straight talk, personal integrity, and common sense."

The line echoed what he told the court years earlier, when he asked the judge for a break.

"The things I value most are honesty, integrity and directness," he wrote.

In light of Negrete's experience reducing his own felony to a misdemeanor, KPCC and NPR asked the councilman about his criticism of Prop. 47. He did not respond to our emailed inquiry.

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Councilman Eric Negrete did not show up at the October 2 Victorville City Council meeting.

In an attempt to speak to Negrete in person, KPCC/LAist attended the Oct. 2 Victorville City Council meeting and informed him ahead of time of the request.

Negrete never showed up.

At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Gloria Garcia recognized a local shelter for victims of domestic violence, and proclaimed October as "Domestic Violence Awareness Month" in Victorville.

Garcia's voice broke while reading the dry language in the declaration. At one point, she looked up and explained why she had started tearing up:

"I'm very touched by this," she said, "because I lost my granddaughter to a crime."

Garcia said she joined the other members of the Council in "urging our citizens to make a difference to one child, one woman, or one family, who suffers from the pain of domestic violence."

Negrete's seat remained empty.

Tom Dreisbach is a reporter and producer for the NPR podcast Embedded. Libby Denkmann covers veterans and the military for KPCC/LAist.


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