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Home Featured Four years in prison — for driving without a license?

Four years in prison — for driving without a license?

Oakland man arrested in SF faces long prison term -- despite a jury finding him not guilty of two felonies.

The Triumph Scramble motorcycle has a hidden ignition switch.

If you want to get a sense of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system in San Francisco, take a look at the case of Charles Mabrey.

He’s facing four years in jail for driving a few blocks on a motorcycle without a license.

The Triumph Scramble motorcycle has a hidden ignition switch.

The case is a microcosm of so many systemic failures.

Mabrey will be in court next week to face sentencing before Judge Ross Moody. The judge could release him — since he’s already served more time awaiting trial than he would ever get for the minor misdemeanor crime.

But the San Francisco District Attorney Office wants to send him to state prison.

Mabrey was initially charged with two felonies for possession of stolen property. He was, indeed, riding a stolen motorcycle.

But at his trial, which concluded Nov. 12, Deputy Public Defender Crystal Carpino was able to prove that Mabrey has no idea the bike was stolen.

Mabrey, the evidence showed, was looking to buy a motorcycle, and a friend told him he had a cousin looking to sell one. The cousin showed up riding a Triumph Scrambler, and told Mabrey to take it for a test ride.

This is common when people buy motorcycles.

Mabrey got on the bike, and stalled out after a few blocks. He had trouble starting it again – because, it turned out, the “cousin” – or whoever had offered the bike – had either stolen it or got it from someone who stole it, hotwired it, and mangled the ignition.

Somebody on the street noticed that Mabrey wasn’t wearing a helmet, and called 911 to say an African American man was stalled on a motorcycle and suggested it might be stolen. Cops showed up quickly, guns drawn, and arrested him.

Carpino told the jury that Mabrey didn’t know the bike was stolen, had every reason to believe the owner had offered to let him test drive it, and had no idea the ignition switch had been tampered with.

It’s hard to find the ignition switch on this bike; in fact, according to the Public Defender’s Office, even the cop who first arrived on the scene (who was very familiar with motorcycles) couldn’t find it.

He was acquitted of both felony charges.

Oh, but he did admit to driving without a license. And since he is on probation for unrelated drug charges, the DA’s Office is asking the judge to send him back to prison for four years. (The charges involved no violence, just possession with intent to sell. Which shouldn’t be a crime anyway.)

“Trying to put someone in prison for four years on such a minor probation violation is inhumane and unnecessary,” said Carpino.

It’s crazy that he was even charged with a misdemeanor for driving without a license. that’s usually just an infraction — a traffic ticket.

“If Mr. Mabrey had been facing nothing more than in infraction, it’s highly unlikely we would even be in this situation,” Carpino told me. The fact that the DA’s Office pressed two felony charges (which were hard to prove and turned out to be bogus) and insisted on charging the traffic ticket as a misdemeanor has suddenly turned tiny infraction into a possible four-year prison sentence.

Mabrey, who has struggled with homelessness, was a teenager when his sister’s violent boyfriend murdered his entire family.

So now, if the DA’s Office has its way, he will go back to prison, at great cost to the state, and further damage to his life.

If Mabrey were white and rich, none of this would ever have happened. If the DA’s Office had any sense of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system, this wouldn’t be happening now.

It’s just one case out of thousands that pass through the criminal courts every year. It the PD’s Office hadn’t brought it to my attention, nobody would have noticed.

But as the era of old-school prosecution is winding down in San Francisco, and a new district attorney is about to take office, it’s time we all pay attention.