Encinitas sunrise
Sunrise in Encinitas. (Pat Maigler / Pixabay)

California’s 6th District Court of Appeal heard arguments Oct. 13 about whether a Los Gatos woman charged with throwing alcohol-fuelled parties for teens should be released from jail.

A Superior Court judge denied bail for Shannon O’Connor earlier this year, but the State Supreme Court told the appellete justices to reconsider the decision, since O’Connor wasn’t technically charged with felony violence or felony sexual assault.

“Let’s just concede that this is not the usual case,” said Presiding Justice Mary Greenwood, kicking off the Thursday hearing. “This one has obvious significance, and I think the justices are likely to have quite a few questions.”

The People noted it had come to be known as the “the Los Gatos party mom” case in the media, contending O’Connor set the stage for fractured limbs, concussions and sexual violence through her actions.

Her lawyer, George Schraer, did his best to paint the injuries sustained by the children as a series of accidents his client just happened to be involved with.

But it wasn’t just the facts of the case that made it so unique, the court heard.

It also provided the justices the opportunity to look at setting precedent about pre-trial release law.

Justice icon
Case law tweaks were considered via O’Connor’s appeals. (Pixabay)

That’s because much of the afternoon session took cues from the story of a 15-year-old Encinitas surfer, who was nearly kidnapped and raped in 2017.

In that situation, a 27-year-old man named Christopher Lee White had served as a lookout while his roommate attacked the teenage girl.

She broke free before the worst could happen, and both men ended up in jail, charged with a series of offenses. White’s bail appeal request was rejected, and the California Supreme Court mulled an unclear area of case law.

The thing is, people in the state have an “absolute right to bail,” thanks to Section 12 of the California Constitution’s first article.

However, a pair of measures approved by voters (with overwhelming support) in the 1980s and ‘90s opened the door to keeping the bars slammed shut on some arrestees.

These amendments allowed judges to refuse bail to those accused of some crimes when the court finds “clear and convincing evidence” there’s a “substantial likelihood” a defendant’s release would “result in great bodily harm to others.”

“Decades later and well into a new century, we review for the first time a trial court’s denial of bail under one of these exceptions,” Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote in a May 21, 2020 opinion in that case.

Shannon O'Connor / Bruga Photo Illustration
Shannon O’Connor composite. (Photo illustration by Drew Penner)

But in the end, though they affirmed White’s no-bail, California’s top judicial minds had opted not to rule on how different pretrial detention provisions in its Constitution interact.

“The Supreme Court has not touched it,” O’Connor’s lawyer noted. “They sent it back to this court to take the first shot.”

So, with O’Connor’s case, the justices weighed what lessons they should implement from the case of that San Diego County surfer who narrowly escaped more dire harm.

Pablo Wudka-Robles, for the People, pointed out White had been the “aider and abetter,” drawing a comparison to events where teenagers got seriously hurt on O’Connor’s watch.

But Justice Greenwood noted White—unlike O’Connor—had admitted he’d been charged with crimes that qualified for a no-bail ruling.

“I recognize that White was charged with certain enumerated offenses,” she said. “The Supreme Court went into substantial details.”

Schraer argued that while the crimes White was facilitating—kidnapping and rape—O’Connor isn’t technically charged with anything nearly as bad.

“If you look at the pleadings…it’s charged as injury to the person or health—that’s not violence,” he said. “There’s a way of injuring the child’s health without violence.”

Justice Charles Wilson reminded everyone the charges against O’Connor are still accusations yet to be tested; but he said they do seem to draw her as the driving force behind an environment that resulted in broken bones, concussions and “non-consensual” touching.

“This is her being involved with felony acts of violence,” he said. 

But Schraer highlighted the fact that all four of the sexual crimes were charged as misdemeanors.

‘We can’t be confident at all that she’s going to stop.”

Pablo Wudka-Robles, lawyer for the People

“There’s no pleaded felony sexual assault,” he said. “There’s no indication here that my client used physical force against a child.”

He said the District Attorney’s Office had painted a “one-sided picture” of O’Connor.

But Wudka-Robles suggested the overall thrust of the complaint against O’Connor shows the offenses were violent.

“This was not an accidental situation,” he said, adding O’Connor would harass teenagers she thought would rat her out. “We can’t be confident at all that she’s going to stop.”

And Wudka-Robles noted O’Connor left the state during the investigation into her activities and appeared to be trying to hide money from authorities, from behind bars.

Greenwood pushed back, noting neither of those things seem related to causing “great bodily harm.”

Wudka-Robles replied he sees it as evidence O’Connor might return to doing the sorts of things she’s charged with, if released.

“It shows an utter disregard for the severity of the consequence she’s facing,” he said. “She’s still continuing to flaunt the law.”

The court has 90 days from last week’s hearing to make up its mind about whether O’Connor should be let out.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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