Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund Spotlight: Mauricio Murga Rios, Los Angeles County Public Defender

by Mauricio Murga Rios

Mauricio Murga Rios is a third-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law. He is a California native and a 2020 Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund (NPILF) award recipient. Coming from an immigrant background and having spent both of his summers in law school working on immigration projects, Mauricio is no stranger to the legal injustices immigrants face. Below, Mauricio reflects on the impact his summer with the Los Angeles County Public Defender had on him.

As a law clerk for the Los Angeles County Public Defender Immigration Unit, I ensured that every non-citizen client had access to high-quality representation. In anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on DACA, I was communicating with local non-profits and building a resource toolkit for public defenders who have DACA clients in the event of an adverse decision. After an unexpected but welcome positive ruling, I created resources to help public defenders understand what the decision meant for their non-citizen clients. Public defenders were also advised on the criminal bars to DACA and on post-conviction relief. Everything was geared to help them preserve their client's DACA status or their client's DACA eligibility. As a DACA recipient myself, it was especially rewarding to be a part of this project.

In light of the rising, massive demonstrations against police brutality sweeping Los Angeles County, the Immigration Unit joined in saying Black Lives Matter (BLM). We joined the call for a full reckoning with this country’s legacy of racism and anti-Black policing. It was anticipated that immigrants in support of the BLM movement were going to get arrested. The concern was that immigration courts in the era of Trump will look unfavorably on any arrests or convictions from this time period and these protests.

I therefore conducted research and assisted in creating resources for both non-citizen protestors and public defenders. Public defenders were advised on the potential consequences their non-citizen clients can have for getting a protest charge such as being in the presence of a riot or failure to disperse at the scene of a riot. For those charged with more serious crimes, the research and resources helped public defenders identify "immigration neutral" charges that their clients can plead to and still keep their status and/or eligibility for future immigration relief. As an immigrant in support of the BLM movement, it was also very rewarding to be a part of this project.

The best part of working for the Immigration Unit was working with a group of people who have an unrelenting desire to advocate for non-citizens. As an undocumented person, I am so grateful that such a unit exists with the Public Defender. The uncertainty of remaining in the United States is always in the minds of non-citizens. This is especially true for non-citizens convicted of a crime, who often get deported after serving their sentence. Through projects such as DACA and BLM, I helped non-citizens charged with a crime not only get high-quality representation, but also helped them remain in the United States by equipping public defenders with the resources necessary to preserve their status and/or eligibility for future immigration relief.

Mauricio with fellow Nebraska Law 3L Ariana Lopez, who also worked with the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office this summer.

In addition to helping the Immigration Unit, I worked with individual public defenders. For one public defender, I drafted a legal memo analyzing California Penal Code 459. The memo was intended to ultimately help a client get a misdemeanor trespass plea deal. Our client was charged with attempted residential burglary, which is a felony. There was video of her entering an enclosed patio and attempting to open the front door of a house. Police arrested her and she told them that she was simply looking for a place to take a shower.

The district attorney argued that an earlier case decided by the Court of Appeals, People v. Martinez, established that our client’s statement that she intended to take a shower equals intent to commit a theft and thus burglary. My job was to confirm if what the district attorney said was true. In other words, under California law, does intent to shower constitute a theft? Reluctantly, I agreed with the district attorney.

In Martinez, the defendant broke into a residence and told police he took a shower using the soap and shampoo in the bathroom. The court rejected the argument that the miniscule amount of soap, shampoo, and water used were not of sufficient value to qualify as property. The court stated the item of property need only have some intrinsic value, however slight, and held that intending to use the soap, shampoo, and hot water of the homeowner constituted an intent to commit a theft because each of the items to be taken and consumed would have some, albeit slight, intrinsic value.

However, we were determined to get our client a trespass deal. My next job was to come up with an argument to distinguish Martinez. I first looked to see if there was case law to show that our client’s situation was different than the Martinez case. Unfortunately, there was not. After consulting with the public defender that assigned me the memo, we came up with a potential argument: if the water was billed to the victim as a flat fee, does that still constitute theft?

I first called the water company to determine if the flat fee argument even applied. They gave me helpful, but limited information to work with, so I went to the town homes and spoke to a building occupant. He confirmed that they paid the Home Owner Association a flat fee for their water. After determining the flat fee argument applied, I had to analyze why water billed as a flat fee was legally significant. I started with reframing the issue to “although our client had the intent to take a shower, this was not necessarily an admission of theft since water consumption in the victim’s home comes in the form of a flat fee.” I then explained why it was not necessarily an admission of theft. In other words, why the Martinez proposition of “some intrinsic value, however slight” did not apply to the water our client would have used. I argued that the amount of water that our client would have used had zero value because the victim pays a flat fee and that a properly instructed jury could conclude that our client did not commit theft by having the intent to use the renewable flat fee water because her conduct would not deprive the victim of anything of value.

Our analysis of Martinez is currently being reviewed by the district attorney. If we are successful in convincing the district attorney that a reasonable fact finder could conclude that this was not theft, our client will receive a misdemeanor rather than a felony plea deal. Regardless of the outcome, we tried our best and I learned so much from this writing project. I learned to never give up, even if the law seems like it is against you, and I got reaffirmation of how motivated public defenders are in advocating for their clients.

It has been such a blessing working for the Public Defender. I am so glad I had the opportunity to be a part of such a great department full of people that uphold justice each and every day! Thanks to the generous financial support from the Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund (NPILF), I was able to focus all my attention on assisting public defenders, rather than worrying about finding a secondary job to pay expenses. Please consider donating. Your donations are what makes experiences like mine happen. You can learn more about NPILF and make a donation here.