Criminal Law and Procedure

Insurance Fraud Results in Eight Years in Prison: Plea of Guilty to Insurance Fraud Stands

When a party pleads guilty to multiple crimes in open court and with the advice of competent counsel he or she can expect to spend time in jail or prison and to have no opportunity to withdraw the plea. However, in People v. Dobson, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 824 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., 2/3/15), [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], the defendant attempted to withdraw his plea after being sentenced to eight years in prison claiming that his lawyer was not competent to adequately represent him.

Defendant and appellant Randy Kenneth Dobson pled guilty to arson of an inhabited structure, presenting a false insurance claim, presenting a false statement in conjunction with an insurance claim, possession of methamphetamine, and possession of drug paraphernalia. The trial court imposed the maximum it said it would consider, which was eight years in state prison. Defendant orally moved to withdraw his guilty plea, but the trial court denied the request. His sole contention on appeal is that this act constitutes an abuse of discretion.

FACTS

On December 26, 2011, a fire broke out at a mobilehome owned by codefendant Lori Jo Alhadeff. The Riverside County Fire Department extinguished the blaze. California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention conducted an investigation in which it concluded that two people had been present in the residence prior to the fire. It determined that the fire was the result of arson.

Investigators found a glass pipe often used for smoking methamphetamine, which contained a white crystalline substance. Defendant, whom Alhadeff described as a “casual fling,” arrived at the scene of the fire on the day it occurred. When questioned by investigators, defendant stated he had been at Aldaheff’s residence the day before the fire but insisted he was only there for a couple of hours in the afternoon. He denied that the pipe belonged to either him or Alhadeff. He asserted he “wasn’t anywhere near” Alhadeff’s mobilehome when the fire began and was instead at a friend’s house playing ping-pong.

In addition to appearing at the scene of the fire and speaking to investigators, on the day of the fire defendant also left “several urgent messages” with Alhadeff’s insurer indicating that her house had burned down but that she was “too upset to call.” Approximately an hour after an insurance representative told defendant she could not answer his questions because he was not on the policy, defendant and Alhadeff appeared at the insurer’s office to file a claim. Defendant prompted Alhadeff to ask questions about valuing the claim at $554,000. Suspicious of the fire’s origin, the People obtained and executed a search warrant for defendant and Alhadeff’s hotel room, as well as the latter’s vehicle and residence was issued.

Among other items, officers seized “a document strategizing the insurance fraud, in what appears to be [defendant’s] handwriting”; glass pipes; a substance that later field-tested positive for methamphetamine; correspondence between defendant and Alhadeff “detailing how to execute the plan to obtain the insurance claim”; and a binder and folder containing insurance paperwork. At some point during the investigation, law enforcement even discovered “a lighter engraved with what is believed to be the inception date of the arson scheme.” Once in custody and Mirandized defendant admitted that he had helped Alhadeff with her insurance claim because she was “not very smart” and he had experience in handling similar claims because of a house fire.

At the preliminary hearing on March 1, 2013, defendant entered a plea of guilty on all counts. Defendant executed a plea form explicitly stating that the maximum sentence he could serve was 11 years two months, that his entitlement to formal probation would be “decided by the court,” and the term he would serve in custody would not exceed eight years in state prison.Defendant told the court that he had a “clear mind” and understood what was happening, he understood that a conviction would violate any probation or parole from previous cases, and he had no questions about the plea form he had executed. When the prosecutor asked if he had committed the acts alleged in each count, he answered, “Yes.” The court asked, “Given our discussion, how do you plead, Mr. Dobson, to each of these counts?” Again without questions or caveats, defendant answered, “Guilty, Your Honor.”

Defendant did not appear at his sentencing hearing, and a bench warrant issued. Later the trial court filed a letter defendant had written to the trial judge indicating that he had not appeared “because this case has been packed with police misconduct and attorney misconduct and would have sent me straight to prison where [he would be] unable to fight for what is true and correct.” He then asserted that defense counsel promised him probation, with no more than one year in jail if he pled guilty, and that “state prison ha[d] been removed from the table.” A hearing was held and defense counsel explained that he and his client were present because defendant had indicated “he wished to explore withdrawing his plea” on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Defense counsel provided a lengthy description of events preceding defendant’s entry of a guilty plea. The trial court then repeated that it had reviewed the transcript from the preliminary hearing and concluded that defendant received oral advisements that he could face eight years in prison.

ANALYSIS

Defendant contends he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea because: (1) he only had a few minutes to confer with trial counsel regarding his charges and possible defenses; (2) his statement that he was not at the scene of the fire constitutes proof of factual innocence; (3) he did not understand the plea terms; and (4) he could not read the plea form because he lacked his eyeglasses. The appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that defendant failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that either contention provided good cause to withdraw his plea. In fact, reviewing his arguments he had no evidence, just a panoply of whines.

To establish good cause to withdraw a plea it must be shown that defendant was operating under mistake, ignorance, or any other factor overcoming the exercise of his free judgment. However, a plea may not be withdrawn simply because the defendant has changed his mind. In this case, defendant had ample opportunity to consider the terms of the deal the court offered him. He pled guilty nine months after initially pleading not guilty, and defense counsel stated that he and defendant “had discussed the case for months” before entry of a guilty plea. Also, the trial court told defendant multiple times that he could serve up to eight years in state prison if he pled guilty. The court could not see any clear and convincing evidence that defendant’s plea was insufficiently knowing and voluntary.

Contrary to Defendant’s claims, a person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned “or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.”

Defendant made no objection when the court informed him he could face up to eight years in state prison, and he asked no questions before stating, “Guilty, Your Honor,” when asked what his current plea was.

ZALMA OPINION

The Defendant helped the victim of his arson with her claim because she was not too smart. He accepted a plea, failed to appear for his scheduled sentencing, claimed his lawyer was inadequate and claimed he had no idea what he was agreeing to since he couldn’t read the agreement without his glasses. Regardless, as the court noted, the agreement was read to him aloud and the judge advised the insured that he was guilty.
A person told by a judge that he could be sentenced to 8 years in jail should never plead guilty if he believes he is innocent when there is a court reporter available to take down every word spoken when his plea of guilty was taken in open court. Apparently Mr. Dobson was even less intelligent than the woman he convinced to try an arson for profit scheme. He will spend eight years in prison.

    By Barry Zalma, Attorney and Consultant

Reprinted with Permission from Zalma on Insurance, (c) 2015, Barry Zalma.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, is a California attorney who limits his practice to consultation regarding insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and fraud and acting as a mediator or arbitrator on insurance disputes. Mr. Zalma serves as a consultant and expert almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He founded Zalma Insurance Consultants in 2001 and serves as its only consultant. He recently published the e-books, "Zalma on Rescission in California - 2013"; "Random Thoughts on Insurance" containing posts from this blog; "Zalma on Insurance;" "Murder and Insurance Don't Mix;" “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose — 2011,” “Zalma on Diminution in Value Damages,” “Arson for Profit” and “Zalma on California Claims Regulations,” and others that are available at Zalma Books.

Mr. Zalma can be contacted at Barry Zalma or zalma@zalma.com, and you can access his free "Zalma on Insurance Fraud" newsletter at Zalma’s Insurance Fraud Letter.

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