Merced area veteran says attorney was ‘high’ during case that could lead to deportation

A U.S. Navy veteran facing deportation testified last week that his former Merced County attorney, Dominic Falasco, appeared to be “high” on drugs and gave him misleading information that led to his incarceration by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Joaquin Antonio Sotelo, a 37-year-old Newman resident, asked Merced County Judge Jeanne Schechter to throw out a 2014 domestic violence conviction, claiming Falasco didn’t advise him that he was opening himself to mandatory deportation by ICE by pleading to the case because it included an “aggravated” felony charge.

Sotelo said he has turned his life around after struggling with substance abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in connection with his difficult time in military combat zones overseas.

It’s the latest in a series of controversies involving Falasco, a locally well-known 52-year-old criminal defense attorney and former school board member from Los Banos, whose competency has been questioned over the past three years.

While the conviction challenge was postponed until Thursday, Sotelo received a different victory Monday after a federal judge indefinitely extended an injunction that prevents ICE from detaining him, according to his attorneys.

He was previously scheduled to report to ICE by Tuesday.

The 2014 conviction led to incarceration for Sotelo for about eight months, about half his sentence for good behavior. Upon his release, he was immediately detained by ICE for 15 months as he fought deportation.

“I would never agree to a deal (if it meant deportation),” Sotelo said Friday. “I have children. I have family. I fought for this country. This is my country. ... Mexico is not a choice.”

Sotelo’s attorneys said other than fighting and winning the case, there were several other possible plea deals Falasco could have negotiated with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office that wouldn’t have triggered mandatory deportation.

Those options included longer prison sentences and possible diversion programs he may have been eligible for as a decorated combat veteran.

“Mr. Sotelo fought for our country,” said attorney Michael Mehr, noting Sotelo is a local advocate for veterans. “He’s been here since he was 10 years old. He’s a lawful permanent resident. And he deserved better from the judicial system.”

Falasco didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

A Veteran with PTSD

Sotelo was born in Mexico but came to the United States in 1991, according to a motion he filed in Merced Superior Court..

During a court hearing Friday, Sotelo said he grew up Los Banos, attending the city’s elementary, junior high and high schools before joining the U.S. Navy in 2001 and conducting aviation support reconnaissance missions to bring back downed airplanes.

Sotelo received his green card in 1999, he said, allowing him to live and work in the United States.

Sotelo said his service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait included going behind enemy lines and engaging in firefights to recover aircraft. His secondary duties were working in a morgue.

At one point, Sotelo was knocked out when he hit his head on the ship while fighting a fire, he said, leading to a diagnosed traumatic brain injury, according to his statements in court records.

Sotelo started abusing alcohol during his service, court documents state. But after he was honorably discharged in 2006, Sotelo suffered from PTSD.

“Feeling lost without any meaningful support from the military, he continued to heavily self-medicate with alcohol and turned to also abuse methamphetamine,” Sotelo’s motion states.

Sotelo’s condition reportedly spiraled, leading to homelessness, substance abuse and felony domestic violence charges in 2013 and 2014.

Sotelo pleaded “no contest” to the 2013 case, which put him on ICE’s radar, he said. The agency opened an immigration case against him.

But in the 2014 case, Sotelo was represented by Falasco. Sotello and Falasco testified Friday that the veteran had a strong case against the felony charge, and they expected to go to trial.

But on Dec. 10, 2014, the first scheduled date of trial, Falasco reportedly told Sotelo about a plea deal brought to him by the District Attorney’s Office, which included three years in prison in exchange for a “no contest” plea. But Falasco didn’t advise Sotelo it would result in mandatory deportation proceedings.

Claims attorney was ‘high’

Sotelo signed a conviction sheet that included a box claiming a conviction would result in deportation for non-U.S. citizens.

But Sotelo said Falasco knew he was a veteran and told him that U.S. veterans don’t get deported.

“I went through with that plea deal with that knowledge because I trusted my attorney,” Sotelo said.

Sotelo also testified that he believed Falasco was “high” while representing him because Falasco was talking fast and “wasn’t all there.”

“I suspected ... he was using (methamphetamine) personally,” Sotelo said, adding he knew how people on methamphetamine acted due to his own experience with the drug.

Falasco denied being high while he was representing Sotelo during his testimony.

Falasco testified that he was drug free at the time, around late 2014. However, when Falasco was arrested in April 2016 on a misdemeanor drug charge, he told police he’d been using methamphetamine for about three years, according to court records introduced Friday by Sotelo’s attorney.

Falasco also testified he didn’t know Sotelo was a veteran, or that he was an immigrant.

Case law states attorneys are required to ask clients their immigration status, his attorneys said.

“Normally, one of the first things I ask is (immigration) status,” Falasco said, adding that he was “certain” Sotelo said nothing to him about being a veteran.

But when presented the face sheet of a police report from the domestic violence incident that identifies Sotelo as a member of the military police or armed forces, he said he was “sure I would’ve noticed that.”

Falasco also said he probably didn’t take into account Sotelo’s 2013 conviction and pending immigration case because he thought Sotelo had a strong case they would likely win at trial.

But Falasco’s explanations don’t hold up, according to an immigration law expert who testified that the “equation” Falasco went through “in his head” wasn’t right.

“I do think it’s ineffective (counsel),” said Katherine Brady, a senior staff attorney at the Immigration Legal Resources Center in San Francisco. She testified at Friday’s hearing.

“It’s a Sixth Amendment duty to inform of immigration consequences,” she said. “You can’t give adequate advice about immigration if you don’t know” a client isn’t a citizen.

Brady also said Sotelo’s status as a veteran could have allowed him avenues toward naturalization rather than deportation, and that he has since shown success with rehabilitation with treatment programs.

Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis said her policy is not to personally comment on issues connected with her duties and office.

But she said due to the nature of Sotelo’s challenge of the conviction, her office’s handling of his motion rested upon the circumstances surrounding Sotelo in 2014, which doesn’t include his rehabilitation and life turnaround.

The question, Lewis said, is if the conviction was reached in accordance with standards of practice.

“There is no commentary on immigration status ... at all,” Lewis said. “We’re making a clinical legal analysis.”

Sotelo is due back in court Thursday to determine whether the 2014 conviction should be thrown out.

Falasco’s credibility questioned

Falasco has represented defendants in several high-profile cases over the past two decades as a contract attorney for the west side of Merced County.

But last year, Falasco was accused by attorneys of sleeping in court during jury selection for a double homicide trial.

A week later, the court received a copy of a letter penned by Falasco to the State Bar that claimed Falasco had been mentally and emotionally unfit to represent Merced County clients for several years, and that he was relinquishing his license to practice.

Falasco told the Merced County judge in the case, Ronald Hansen, that he never sent the letter to the State Bar, according to court transcripts. Instead, he claimed the letter was a ruse meant for his wife to reconcile his failing marriage.

Also last year, Falasco was named in a civil sexual harassment suit that claimed he asked a potential client’s girlfriend for sexual favors in exchange for representation, according to court documents. That civil suit followed news that Falasco was briefly suspended by the State Bar for failing to pay child support.

He also was arrested on April 18, 2018, for a domestic violence incident involving his ex-wife. That was about two years after his drug arrest, to which he in September 2017 pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.

Falasco’s troubles also could spark trouble for the District Attorney’s Office’s corruption case against former Los Banos Mayor Tommy Jones and Merced County contractor Gregory Opinski, who have pleaded not guilty to charges of bribing Falasco for his vote on a school board.

Jones and Falasco were both elected members of the Los Banos Unified School District Board in 2015 and 2016 when Falasco secretly recorded conversations between him, Jones and Opinski for the District Attorney’s Office.

Jones and Opinski reportedly paid Falasco $12,500 to vote certain ways on three board decisions, one of which was to hire Opinski as the construction manager for a school project, according to investigation reports.

But the defendants’ attorneys have called into question both Falasco’s credibility as a witness and the validity of the recordings he made.

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Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.