William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
When I wrote my preliminary analysis of the criminal charges filed against San Leandro High School Teacher Richard Styner, I relied purely on the facts as reported by the media. I have now obtained the actual court documents filed in this case. These include the charge sheet filed by the District Attorney, and the “declaration of probable cause” on which those charges are based, executed by San Leandro Police officer Cathy Pickard. Based on them, I can say without much difficulty that the charges against Styner are bogus and they should be dismissed.
Styner was charged on two counts: residential burglary and possession of child pornography. He plead non-guilty to both. He was released on his own recognizance.
The residential burglary charge is based on allegations that Rick Styner entered the home of a friend (referred to as “Jane Doe” in court documents, but known to be former San Leandro High School principal Amy McNamara Furtado), while she was out of town, using a key she had given him for emergencies. Once there, he allegedly opened her closed dresser drawers and took pictures of her underwear and unidentified “personal”, “intimate” items. He also is alleged to have removed her running pants and underwear from the drawers, laid them out and photographed them. The declaration does not indicate the alleged purpose behind this conduct.
Unfortunately for the DA and Ms. McNamara, this conduct does not constitute a crime. Under California law, a residential burglary is the unlawful entrance of a dwelling with the intention to commit a larceny or another felony. Styner is not charged with larceny and, contrary to media reports, the police declaration does not state that he removed any item from McNamara’s home or that he had any intention to do so. The police declaration also fails to allege any conduct by Styner that could constitute a felony under California law. The SLPD had wanted the court to charge Stnyer with “disorderly conduct,” under a Penal Code provision (PC 647(J)(1)) that criminalizes the use of a camera to spy on a person – but this section is very clear that the person has to be present. In any case, that would be a misdemeanor.
What seems likely is that the DA charged Styner with a serious felony, hoping to intimidate him into pleading to something else. At the arraignment, the judge commented on the weakness of this particular charge.
The child pornography charge stems from a single photograph allegedly found in a folder in the school computer, also allegedly belonging to Styner (some news stories mistakenly reported that 200 photographs had been found, but only one is described on the declaration and he is only charged with one count of possession). The photograph showed a woman posing so as to show her buttocks and part of her labia (in a pose probably similar to this one). According to Officer Pickard the model “appears to be under the age of 18”. Under California law, a charge of child pornography requires both that the subject of the photograph be underage and that the person in possession of the photograph know it. Given that the Police does not claim to have identified the woman in the picture and that the only indication of the woman’s age is Officer Pickard’s appraisal of her buttocks (which begs the question of how much experience Officer Pickard has in assessing women’s posteriors), it seems unlikely that any reasonable juror would believe that Styner “knew” her to be a minor.
There is a more technical problem with this case: the chain of custody. In order for the DA to be able to use the evidence found in the school computer, he must show that after Styner relinquished the computer to the school authorities, proper forensic procedures were followed so as to make it unlikely that anyone would have tampered with the computer files. This includes making a copy of the hard drive and doing any analysis of its contents on the copy, not the real thing. Neither the District nor the Police have released information as to who took control of the computer and what procedures were followed, but if a proper chain of custody is not established, the whole case will be thrown out.
I have tried to do a quick summary of the evidence in the Styner case. The charges are weak. They are likely to be thrown out of court, but he can expect to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees. Both he and his wife are teachers, he is now in unpaid leave, and regardless of what happens with the criminal charges, it’s likely that he will lose his job. The gist of this is that these charges, however groundless, have destroyed his reputation in this community, threaten his freedom and his financial stability – as well as his family’s.
I don’t take this lightly. If it happened to Rick Styner, a well-liked teacher and a pillar of this community, it can happen to any of us.
The San Leandro Police Department acted at best irresponsibly and at worse maliciously and criminally. It is now incumbent upon the San Leandro City Council both to engage an independent investigator to look into what seems to be a pattern of malicious arrests and press releases by Chief Sandra Spagnoli and the SLPD. It must also pass an immediate policy prohibiting the SLPD from issuing any press releases about any person that has not been convicted of a crime, and to provide a public accounting of the status of the cases of all subjects of prior press releases.