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Maria Del Rocio Garcia v. the Superior Court of San Joaqin County

June 11, 2012


(Super. Ct. No. SF115022A)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie , J.

Garcia v. Superior Court CA3


California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

In this writ proceeding, we hold the magistrate improperly held petitioner Maria Del Rocio Garcia to answer for two of the eight grand theft charges pled against her. As we will explain, the magistrate should have dismissed those two counts because the hearsay statements made by declarants employed by the companies that petitioner did business with were unreliable. As to those two counts, the declarants lacked personal knowledge of the business transactions. The testifying officer who recounted the hearsay was not able to describe in meaningful detail the circumstances under which the declarants' hearsay statements were made (for example, the officer could not remember the names of the declarants or the positions they held in the companies). And there was nothing else to bolster the reliability of the declarants' statements. As we will further explain, the magistrate properly held petitioner to answer for the remaining counts because, contrary to petitioner's argument, there was sufficient evidence petitioner took money belonging to the companies and she specifically intended to deprive them of their money.



Overview Of The People's Case At The Preliminary Hearing

This case involves business transactions between car wholesalers, used car dealers such as petitioner, and lenders who help consumers purchase cars from the dealers. In these transactions, the wholesaler sells a car on credit to a used car dealer. The wholesaler transfers possession of the car to the used car dealer and executes a contract with the used car dealer ensuring the wholesaler will be paid when a consumer buys the car. After a consumer agrees to buy a car from the used car dealer, the consumer borrows money from a lender. The lender then pays the used car dealer directly and the consumer takes possession of the car. The used car dealer then pays the wholesaler.

The People's theory of the case presented at the preliminary hearing was that petitioner received money from lenders but then did not pay the wholesalers, so the wholesalers did not give title to petitioner, and petitioner could not give title to the lenders. In this way, petitioner stole from both the wholesalers and the lenders.

To support their theory of the case, the People called as witnesses two wholesalers (Gurpreet Dhatt of West Coast Motors and Tom O'Neill of Valley Motors), one lender (Dawn Marie Zarate of Lobel Financial Corporation), and an investigator from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Christina Benafield, who had been a peace officer for eight years. Benafield in turn testified about conversations she had with two wholesalers (Jeff Brasher of Brasher Auto Auction and Mahmoud Alameddin Daoud of Northbay Motors), and three lenders (a gentleman from County Financial, Brenda from Credit West, and Mark Garaman from Rudolph Inc.)


Testimony At The Preliminary Hearing

Benafield began investigating petitioner in July 2007 when Benafield received a complaint from lender Rudolph Inc. that it had never received title for vehicles it had purchased from petitioner's used car sales business US Auto (count 8). Benafield then spoke with Mark Garaman. According to Benafield, Garaman said he was employed by Rudolph Inc. Garaman "probably" told Benafield his specific job title, although Benafield "just d[id]n't recall exactly what it is." She discussed with Garaman a list of vehicles that Rudolph Inc. had originally submitted to DMV as part of its complaint. Garaman provided her with a list of vehicles for which he still did not have title, along with the contracts for each one of those vehicles, as well as copies of the canceled checks the consumers had paid to US Auto for their vehicles. This list included information on the specific make and year of cars, dates when the cars were sold, the name of the purchaser, and the amount for which Rudolph Inc. financed the car. The list covered 11 cars in the first quarter of 2007 and one in the second quarter. In Benafield's estimation, Rudolph Inc. financed "roughly around 35 vehicles" but Benafield "couldn't tell . . . exactly how many." Garaman gave her a dollar figure of the loss Rudolph Inc. suffered although Benafield did not know what that was "off the top of [her] head." The numbers Benafield testified to added up to $16,378.89, although that figure did not include all the numbers Garaman provided her. Garaman said Rudolph Inc. requested from petitioner the titles for these cars.

Following Rudolph Inc.'s complaint, Benafield visited petitioner at US Auto later in July 2007. Benafield told petitioner DMV had been receiving complaints of titles that were still outstanding to Rudolph Inc. Petitioner said she did not have the files with her so she could not speak about each of the cars individually. They set up an appointment so petitioner could come into DMV and explain the status of each of the vehicles.

At that meeting in August 2007, petitioner's files showed that only four of the 36 titles pertaining to the Rudolph Inc. transactions had been transferred. Petitioner said there were other wholesalers that had titles to vehicles for which she still had not paid, including Valley Motors, West Coast, Northbay Motors, and Brashers Auction. She explained the Board of Equalization had revoked her seller's permit, then DMV revoked her dealer's license, then she filed bankruptcy, and upon filing bankruptcy, the Board of Equalization reinstated her seller's permit, which allowed her to regain her dealer's license. She said her business practice was going to change, and she would no longer sell vehicles without first having title in hand.

In October 2007, DMV received more complaints about petitioner. A second lender, Lobel Financial, came forward (count 7). Dawn Marie Zarate was the branch manager for Lobel Financial Corporation. Zarate testified that part of her duties included purchasing vehicle loans from dealerships. US Auto was doing business with Lobel Financial in 2006 and 2007. Their business relationship started to unravel about one year before US Auto went out of business. US Auto began transferring titles later and later to Lobel Financial, there were more defaults, and customers began surrendering their cars to Lobel Financial. When Zarate confronted petitioner, she gave various reasons: "[s]he was waiting for title from auction. She . . . needed additional paperwork. There was always a lot of reasons why she would need additional time to transfer title through DMV, but then would ultimately come through." When US Auto went out of business, the ...

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