A Sutter County Superior Court judge sentenced a Yuba City man to 34 years, four months in state prison after a jury found the man guilty of assault with a semiautomatic firearm on a peace officer, shooting at an occupied vehicle, and being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm.

Leland Oscar Vaca, 40, has been in custody since December 2017 for an incident that took place in November 2017. His charges stem from him allegedly shooting at a Yuba City Police Department officer who was attempting to pull him over to arrest him on warrants. The bullet missed the officer and a vehicle pursuit ensued. Vaca crashed into a home in the 500 block of Cooper Avenue. Law enforcement shot Vaca after he fled on foot and failed to follow commands.

On June 3, the jury found Vaca guilty of three counts but hung on a count of attempted murder. The district attorney’s office did not seek a retrial on that count. Prior to trial, the DA’s office dismissed a count of evading originally charged to Vaca.

On Friday, Judge David Ashby ruled that Vaca’s 2005 conviction in Colusa County would not count toward sentencing Vaca under the three strikes law.

Ashby heard arguments on Friday regarding a motion filed by defense attorney Jesse Santana requesting to strike Vaca’s prior strike offenses in order to ask for a reduced sentence. In a separate court trial, Ashby found that Vaca had committed two prior serious felony strike offenses. The 2017 strike offense would have been his third and exposed him to a sentence of possible life in prison.

Santana argued that in the 2005 conviction, court documents from Colusa County indicated that Vaca was not advised of the repercussions the conviction would have on future convictions. Specifically, Santana pointed to Vaca’s 2005 plea form as missing circles or check marks on portions of the document to confirm Vaca was told of what a strike offense would mean for his record going forward.

“We know that they know how to mark these,” Ashby said of Colusa County.

Vaca was also convicted of a strike offense in 2010.

Ashby indicated that he planned to side with the defense and strike the 2005 strike. He said that Vaca would still be serving a substantial prison term without this offense being his third strike and increasing his sentence to up to life in prison. Ashby said Vaca has had five previous felony convictions between 2005-2018, has served four prison commitments and that the 2017 incident took place in a Yuba City suburb.

“Frankly, it is a miracle that somebody wasn’t injured or killed,” Ashby said.

However, he said one of the goals of the three strikes law is deterring people from committing future crimes. Ashby said Vaca did not have that deterrence because he did not know his 2005 offense was a strike. In addition, Ashby said the court received several letters from members of the community vouching for Vaca and saying he had a rough childhood and has been trying to better himself.

Heimlich argued that nothing in the three strikes law says a defendant must be advised of the consequences of subsequent strike offenses. He said Ashby would be going too far in striking the 2005 strike and pointed to past cases with similar circumstances.

“The law does not require knowledge and advisement,” Heimlich said.

Ashby stuck with his decision and accepted the defense motion to strike the 2005 strike citing the interest of justice. He did not strike the 2010 prior strike. 

Ashby sentenced Vaca to a total of 34 years, four months in prison. Vaca’s 2010 conviction impacted his sentence.

Heimlich asked Ashby to order Vaca to pay restitution to the City of Yuba City for damage done to a patrol car during the pursuit. Ashby said because the damage to the car was caused by a failed pit maneuver by a YCPD officer, Vaca did not have to pay the city. Heimlich had previously indicated that the DA’s office would not be seeking an order for Vaca to pay the owner of the home on Cooper Avenue whose house was damaged because the police pit maneuver caused Vaca to crash into the home.

“I can’t justify ordering one and not the other,” Ashby said.

He said he hoped the resident would apply for reimbursement through the city.

Vaca has credit for 1,143 days in custody. He has 60 days to file an appeal of the court’s sentence.

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