Rick Styner

Sep 272013

law-gavelRick Styner case shows how criminal defendants can be easily railroaded

Yesterday I went to court to listen to the the third part of the preliminary hearing on the case against Rick Styner, the San Leandro High School teacher accused of possession of child pornography.  Unfortunately I missed the first two days of the hearing and the media coverage by the BANG papers has been atrocious.

Yesterday, the judge ruled there was sufficient cause to go to trial on charges of stealing a pair of Amy McNamara Furtado’s panties and of possessing child pornography (not for anything found in his schools computer, mind you, but for 10 files found stored in the basement of his house, that had last been accessed in 2002).

With respect to the burglary, the original allegations were that Styner went to Amy McNamara Furtado’s home, laid out some of her running gear and took pictures of it.  The problem was that that, in itself, does not constitute “burglary”.  For a burglary to exist, Styner would have had to enter the house intending to commit a felony or a theft.  But no such thing was originally alleged.

Amy is now claiming that a pair of the sports panties that Styner photographed are missing.   While that claim may not be particularly credible, in our system of law the judge doesn’t get to make that determination.  It’s up to the juries to decide on the credibility of a witness.   The question that the judged had to consider was  “are there rational grounds to believe” that Styner went to the house with the intention to steal the panties.   The judged made it clear that he wanted the defense attorney to argue that there wasn’t one, he gave him plenty of opportunities. I don’t know why the defense attorney didn’t simply say “just because panties are missing, it doesn’t mean they were taken, Amy could have just misplaced them, left them at the gym, or they could have gone wherever socks go” and “why would Styner take pictures of the panties if he planned to steal them?”.   I think that would have been enough for the judge to kill this charge.

But the defense attorney didn’t make the arguments, and the judge let the charges stand.  The judge, however, implied much that it’s unlikely that the inference could be used at trial where the standard of proof is much more substantial.   But the system is such that it takes very little evidence to make it to trial in the first place.

The porn charges are more interesting. I wasn’t there for the first two days of the prelim, but Styner is not being tried because of any alleged child pornography found on his school computer.  This suggests to me that there wasn’t any child pornography in the school computer at all, which is what I concluded when I looked at the charges last summer.  However, making up that claim did give the Police the opportunity to get a warrant to search Styner’s house. In the basement, they found a number of computer parts. Among them there were two hard drives that had a total of ten short videos and photos of what, to the judge, looked like child pornography.  Not having seen the videos, I’ll assume that they were.  Again, at this level of the procedures, you don’t need much in the way of proof.

The question that the defense attorney had to raise then, was whether there is any evidence that Styner knowingly possessed the files.  The hard drives were in the basement of his house, but were they his?  Given that Styner was a computer geek that question is actually quite important.  I live with a computer geek myself, and there are lots of computer parts – including hard drives – all over my house.  My husband gets them from friends who are throwing them away or from work (or nearby offices at work), meaning to do something with them.   Often times he doesn’t get to it, and there they languish.  I know that in many cases he has no idea what’s on the computer drives and that could very well be true with Styner.  But his attorney failed to make that point.

Even if those particular drives did belong to Styner – if, for example, the Prosecution could show that there were files in the hard drives that could clearly be attributed to him – there is another just as pressing question: “did Styner know he had them”?  It’s common for men to download porn, and often times they do it on big batches, rather than selecting specific pieces.  When you download files in batches or in .zip files, you may end up downloading files you never intended to get.  Unless you looked at them, you wouldn’t know what they had in them.  Again, I did not hear the defense attorney raising this point.

The Styner case shows how important a good defense attorney is – but also how any of us could be so easily railroaded by the Police and a prosecutor’s office that has no regards for justice.

Rick Styner will now have to chose between making a plea or bankrupting himself completely and going to trial.  The latter will probably involve having to discuss the intimate details of his relationship with Amy McNamara Furtado, which I’m sure he fears will embarrass his wife and adds to the pressures to plea bargain.

What is happening to him could happen to *any* of us.

**Full disclosure: I’ve met Rick Styner once, yesterday at the prelim hearing. I greeted him and told him I was sorry and that I thought the charges looked very weak. I’ve met his wife Mary Styner also once, yesterday. I’ve met Amy Furtado a number of times when she was principal at San Leandro High School. I had no particular opinion of her. The three of them were friends of SLT’s facebook page when this sage started, Amy has since defriended me.

Jun 132013

stynerHeaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned

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.

Jun 102013
A scene from the movie "Flowers in the Attic." The SLPD considers the book to be "child pornography".

A scene from the movie “Flowers in the Attic.” The SLPD considers the book to be “child pornography”.

An Open Letter to Chief Sandra Spagnoli

Dear Chief Spagnoli:

You have requested that the public alert you about “similar incidents” to those concerning the charges for child pornography filed against SLHS teacher Rick Styner.

According to court documents, as reported by the media, these charges arise from “more than 200 pornographic stories” found on his computer,  including one about a 14-year-old girl having sex with her brother, reportedly accompanied by the naked picture of a girl that looked to be underage.

The story mentioned in court records sounds very much like “Flowers In The Attic
“, the best seller by V. C. Andrews.  The novel – which was made into a very bad movie
– concerns four siblings that are raised hidden in an attic and repeatedly abused.  As the children enter puberty, the older siblings start to develop sexual feelings for one another, and they consummate that relationship when the girl is 14 years old.
I have checked the San Leandro library catalog, and it would seem that the library does have multiple copies of this “pornographic story”.  It would thus seem prudent that the SLPD get warrants to search the homes and computers of all library personnel responsible for distributing such “child pornography”.

“Flowers in the Attic” has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and it’s a favorite among teenage readers.  It would therefore seems likely that the book is also present in San Leandro school libraries and English classrooms. The SLPD should not take any chances and start investigations into all SLUSD librarians and English-language teachers.  Perhaps the SLPD should get a court order to have Amazon.com and other booksellers disclose the identity of everyone in the city that has bought a copy of this “pornographic” novel, so the investigation can become even more inclusive.   Who knows what other untold crimes people who read this story may be committing?

Of course, I understand that the problem is not only this “pornographic story” in Mr. Styner’s computer, but the fact that it was illustrated with a picture of someone who appeared to be underage.  While there may be a question about the age of the model in that photograph, there is no question that actress Thora Birch was only 16 when she appeared nude in the Oscar winning film American Beauty.  The main library, and undoubtedly hundreds of San Leandrans, have a copy of this movie and thus, according to SLPD standards, seem to be in possession of “child pornography.”

As you probably also know, when I wrote my article on the Styner investigation, I linked to pictures of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby
– a movie in which she appeared nude when she was barely 12 years old.  Not only should the SLPD thus be able to arrest me, but everyone who read my story and clicked on the link.  I should be able to provide for the Chief the IP addresses of everyone in that situation.  Will arrest warrants follow?

Thank you, once again, for your commitment to keep San Leandro free of any real crime.  I support your crusade to clean the bookshelves of San Leandro’s citizens.  It’s definitely a much more important endeavor than paying attention to pesky little things like robberies, actual burglaries, domestic violence and, the peskier of them all, corruption and misconduct within your own department.


Margarita Lacabe

This letter was e-mailed to Chief Sandra Spagnoli and copied to Mayor Stephen Cassidy, the other members of the City Council, City Manager Chris Zapata, Assistant City Manager Lianne Marshall and City Attorney Richard Pio Roda.

Jun 062013

mengelsuitIs High School Teacher SLPD’s latest victim?

Earlier this week, the San Leandro Police Department issued a press release announcing the filing of charges for “possession of child pornography” against Rick Styner, a teacher at San Leandro High School.  In one day, the reputation of a man that, by all accounts, had been honorable and respectful of his students, has been destroyed, possibly beyond repair.  I don’t think any of us can imagine the social opprobrium the Styner family is experiencing right now.  And yet, a careful reading of the facts as reported in the news stories do not show any actual criminal conduct by Styner.   Regardless of what happens to the charges, whether they are dismissed or whether Styner is tried and found innocent, his life and career has been ruined by Chief Sandra Spagnoli and the San Leandro Police Department.  And he is not the only one.

False Arrests at Marina Park

Last year, the SLPD issued another press release, featuring the pictures of two older men and accusing them of loitering around the bathrooms at Marina Park to solicit men for sex.   The community reacted immediately, calling these men every name in the book and instantly assuming they were guilty.  Even I, while arguing that their conduct was not a crime unless they actually intended for someone else to unwittingly witness a sex act, assumed that the basic facts of the press release were true: the men were hanging out around the bathroom hoping to pick up other men for sex.  I was wrong in making that assumption.  Simply put, the SLPD’s press release was a lie.

The lie was most egregious in the case of Michael Woody.  Woody had stopped at the parking lot near the Marina Park bathrooms with the intention of using the facilities for their intended purpose.  An undercover SLPD officer was loitering around and tried to engage Woody in conversation.  When the officer followed Woody into the bathroom, Woody became understandably uncomfortable and decided to leave.  The officer followed him to his car and arrested him as he was turning on the engine.   Woody had never indicated any interest in engaging with the police officer on any activities.  No charges were filed against him.

Steven Mengel, on the other hand, did show interest when a twenty-something plain-clothes officer Matthew Barajas approached him as he was sitting inside his car, parked in a public street, and propositioned him.  They made a date to meet the next day at noon near the bathrooms.  When Mengel arrived, Barajas showed up with a “friend”, now identified as Sargent Brian Anthony.  They agreed that Anthony would serve as a “look out”, making sure nobody came, while Mengel gave Barajas a hand job in the bathroom stall.  Before he had the opportunity to do so, he was arrested.

As I mentioned after the men’s arrest, California law only criminalizes sexual conduct in public, when it’s done under the reasonable belief that it could be witnessed by others who would be offended at the sight.  Clearly, that was not the case in this case as officer Anthony’s “job” was precisely to make sure that nobody would witness the act.  Disregarding the law, the SLPD officers not only arrested Mengel but they issued a press release falsely accusing him of loitering with the intent of engaging in illegal acts.  He was actually charged with this offense – which suggests to me that we should give little credence to any charges the Alameda County District Attorney levies against anyone -, but the charges were dismissed by the court.

Unfortunately, it will ultimately be San Leandro residents that have to pay for the SLPD’s misconduct – the city has been hit by a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Mengel, Woody, and all other men who have been subjected to similar actions by the SLPD.   While the lawsuit does not specify an amount for damages, similar lawsuits have resulted in settlements in the six and seven figures.  So much for Mayor Cassidy’s argument that the City should give Chief Spagnoli a raise because she would save the city money on lawsuits.

The Styner Case

(Update: the actual court documents in this case show that the charges are bogus).

What happened in the Marina Park should warn us against jumping to conclusions on the Styner case as well.  Indeed, a close examination of the facts on this case show that it’s not only weak but suspicious.

Rick Styner is a Computer Science teacher at San Leandro High School.   On April 16, he was teaching his class how to transfer files between devices, when he accidentally clicked on a file in his dropbox folder, opening a nude photograph of himself.  The police have not described this photograph, but according to what a student of Styner’s wrote on Facebook, it actually focused on the tattoos that Styner sports on his thigh – he gets one after he completes a marathon -, and only incidentally showed his genitalia.  *Update*.  After writing this part I looked through Styner’s facebook page and found a picture of the tattoo.  It’s actually on his right hip, and while this particular picture is cropped, it’s reasonable to believe that the original might have shown part of his genitalia and might have been the one the students were exposed to.  It’s clear that the purpose of this picture was to show off the tattoo.  Styner got it in August 2012; the little balls signify the marathon’s he’s completed, the number signifies the distance of the marathon (26.2 miles) and the phrase means “will run” in a Tolkien language.

Immediately after this incident, Styner notified the school authorities and surrendered his school-issued laptop computer.  An unidentified school district employee proceeded to look through the computer where s/he allegedly found material that s/he considered to be disturbing.   The district notified the police, without first notifying the School Board.

The material in question seems to mostly consist of written erotica and is fully protected by the first amendment.  According to news reports, one of these stories concerned incest between two teenage siblings (update, this story appears to be “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews) , and it included a naked picture of a woman who looked like she might be underage.  The Police has not said whether they have identified the woman or confirmed that she is, indeed, underage.  The picture has not otherwise been described, so we don’t know if it is actually pornographic (not all naked pictures of minors are; “Pretty Baby” can still be shown in theaters in California even though it shows a naked, pre-pubescent Brooke Shields.  Did you click on that last links? You are now in danger of having the SLPD arrest you for possession of child pornography.).

The police have also not stated whether the story had actually been authored by Rick Styner, or whether he had downloaded it.  If the latter, the police must show that Steiner actually knew the story contained a pornographic picture of an underage girl.  After all, it’s extremely common for people to download large story collections, and not necessarily read or examine every single one.  It’s also very easy to unwittingly receive material – specially via a dropbox account – that one did not seek or is aware of.  And it’s not always easy to be able to tell the age of a model by her picture alone, much less determine whether the picture is actually pornographic.  Is this picture of Brooke Shields child pornography? You tell me – but if you look, beware that the picture will be downloaded to your computer and you’ll be potentially just as guilty of possessing child pornography as Rick Styner.   Which is likely, not at all.  “Possession of child pornography” is an intent crime, so unwittingly downloading pictures that you don’t know to be pornographic is not a crime.

My personal feeling is that if Styner was, indeed, interested in child pornography, there would have been hundreds of child porn pictures in his computer, not just one of someone who looks like she may be underage and who is not apparently engaged in actual sexual conduct.

The second charge against Rick Styner is even more bizarre.  He is accused of going into the home of a friend, who had given him the key, and taking pictures of her underwear and running clothing.   He is also accused of putting the picture of the woman’s head on pictures of naked bodies.   Apparently, he also took something from the woman’s home, which the police would not identify.

Now, I understand that the Police is trying to suggest that he took pictures of the clothing because of some weird sexual kink – but I find it interesting that the pictures also included the woman’s running gear.  Could it be that Styner – a marathoner – was actually more interested in the brand and style of the clothing?  I don’t know if he actually removed an item of clothing from his friend’s house – the police has shown that it’s not above lying in print and they might have made this up so that they can charge him with burglary -, but  could it not have been for a similarly innocuous reason, such as showing it to his wife to see if she’d like one like it?

As for the photographs – putting someone’s head on someone else’s body, however disturbing, is definitely not a crime, which begs the question of why the police would make such a big deal about it.

I have not personally met Rick Styner – though he is a facebook friend of this blog -, and I have no insight into who he is.  I do know, however, that when I googled him, what I first found about him (other than stories on these charges) were stories about how when SLHS teachers were protesting having to put anti-LGBT-bullying posters on their classrooms, Styner said he would put two.   Given the clear anti-LGBT bias that the SLPD has shown, and which still lingers at the school district, it makes me wonder if there could be a connection there.

In any case, so far it does not appear that Rick Styner has committed any crime, at least no more than what I did when I googled images of “Brook Shields Pretty Baby” and automatically downloaded several of her underage and naked into my computer.  Then again, I would not be surprised if the SLPD was knocking at my home next.