Prosecutors learn to better deal with combat veterans' situations

By MONICA VAUGHAN | Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. | Published: March 6, 2015

MARYSVILLE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Earlier this year, a Yuba County court ordered a combat veteran to enroll in a residential treatment program for substance abuse and mental health issues instead of sending him to prison.

Veterans courts are developing across the state to address the needs of men and woman who have been in combat and later end up in front of a criminal court judge.

The program doesn't exist in Yuba-Sutter, but courts can and do rely on veteran-specific sentencing guidelines to help direct veterans to services they may need. In Yuba County, that work is done by someone who better understands the unique needs of those individuals.

Christopher Robert Laboy faced felony criminal charges in August after he held a gun to his girlfriend's head, choked her, pushed her while she held their 5-week-old son and said he was going to kill her in their Wheatland home.

He loaded the gun and spoke of killing himself while he held the firearm in his hands, pointed at his head. He had drunk about a fifth of Captain Morgan rum, according to the woman's testimony in a preliminary hearing.

After Deputy District Attorney Mike Byrne learned Laboy served three tours in Afghanistan, he took the case, as he does with all Yuba County Superior Court cases involving veterans. Byrne faced combat while serving in Vietnam as an infantryman from 1971-73.

For the last 10 years, Byrne has handled cases involving a veteran defendant. He pulls about half-dozen such cases a year.

Just a few weeks ago, a sentencing hearing for another defendant was postponed after he stated he was in the Army and served in Iraq. Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Jones immediately postponed the hearing based on the new information and handed the case to Byrne.

Once Byrne receives a case involving a veteran, if the case is less serious, he will direct the defendant to veterans services. If the case is serious, a diagnosis is ordered from a professional to assess if the defendant's criminal activity was related to combat.

"Just because you're in the military doesn't mean your criminal activity is related to military service," Byrne said. But, sometimes courts may learn through diagnosis that the defendant is struggling with post traumatic stress disorder or self-medicating with a controlled substance to cope with the psychological and emotional impact of war. Veterans can have difficulty transitioning back into society.

"In a direct combat unit, you're trained to respond to threatening stimuli with overwhelming violence," Byrne said. "That is your go-to response. And trainers are good at their job."

An analysis of Laboy done at Beale Air Force Base found his actions were related to his service.

Laboy pleaded no contest to four felony charges. His sentence of seven years, eight months in prison was suspended in January for treatment, as allowed under a penal code section passed by state legislators in 1982 for the special needs of military veterans.

After a search for an appropriate treatment placement, he was sent to Red River Hospital Behavioral & Inpatient Treatment Center in Wichita Falls, Texas, and ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling, a batterer's treatment program, and ordered to take all medications as prescribed.

A probation officer was given discretion to terminate Laboy's probation upon successful completion of treatment.

"I hope he gets better," Byrne said. "I hope I never see him (in criminal court) again, ever."

Neither Yuba nor Sutter County has a veterans treatment court.

Counties across the state, including Sacramento and San Francisco, have begun special veterans courts to better identify services and treatment options to serve the needs of veterans who end up in front of a judge.

They involve partners found in drug courts, along with mental health and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care networks.

Area Veterans Service Officer Marvin King Jr. said a meeting was held on the issue two or three years ago, but there wasn't much interest due to a lack of resources and few numbers of vets coming through the system. There are about 13,000 veterans in Yuba-Sutter.

King said if a veteran is identified the first time he is in front of a judge and directed to veterans services, "we may be able to prevent a lifetime of misery for them and their families."

Sutter County District Attorney Amanda Hopper said she is open to the idea of veterans courts and has heard interest from members of the community.

"It would depend on feasibility in Sutter County, resource wise, and demand," Hopper said. "If it worked out, I think it would be great."

Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath said he is not averse to veterans court, but he doesn't see the number of veterans coming through who would justify a need for a special court, and their current system does identify veterans and directs them to available resources.

"We could provide the services without any formal veterans court," McGrath said. "You want to focus on how you're getting the services to people, not the tool you use to do it."

Still, King said he thinks it could be valuable and would increase the involvement of veteran's services in the court process.

"In my mind, it's the right thing to do," King said. "Basically, it's trying to keep them from going back into the system over and over. Early intervention and addressing the issues that got them in (front of the courts) in the first place, to stop it from reoccurring."

"I don't want to make it sound that every veteran comes back with problems, but the percentage is higher than what (the Department of Defense) advertises," King said.

Those problems can include post-traumatic stress disorder, relationship problems, heightened, startled responses, anger issues, mood swings or motivational problems.

"A lot of vets — they go in healthy and well. They go through combat and then they come back less than that. We should do whatever we can to help them get back into society to establish a future life," King said. "Whatever we can do to help them get a normal life."

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