Atascadero man lashed out during a mental health crisis. Now he faces jail time for assault

Watch the incident that could send a mentally ill Atascadero man to jail

A 32-year-old schizophrenic Atascadero man suffering a mental health crisis in November 2017 struck a technician at San Luis Obispo County's psychiatric health facility. He now faces two misdemeanors charges and up to a year in County Jail.
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A 32-year-old schizophrenic Atascadero man suffering a mental health crisis in November 2017 struck a technician at San Luis Obispo County's psychiatric health facility. He now faces two misdemeanors charges and up to a year in County Jail.

An Atascadero mother spent Tuesday outside the San Luis Obispo Superior Courthouse protesting the District Attorney's Office's filing of criminal charges against her adult son, who struck a technician at the county's psychiatric health facility in November while in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Joseph Perez, 32, is expecting to go to trial within the next 60 days on two misdemeanor counts of assault and simple battery causing great bodily injury. The victim in the case received a deep laceration to his ear, though it's unclear from video of the incident whether the injury was caused by Perez or the ensuing struggle.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office originally charged Perez with two felonies — one charge alone carried a possibility of four years in state prison and a strike under California's Three Strikes law — but a judge reduced the charges to misdemeanors in March after hearing testimony from the victim.

On Tuesday, Perez's mother, Lisa Kania, protested her son's prosecution outside the courthouse, saying that District Attorney Dan Dow shouldn't criminalize her son, who was delusional and had been placed at the facility on a 72-hour involuntary hold when he struck the technician.

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Lisa Kania, mother of 32-year-old Joseph Perez, and Dawn Marie Anderson protest against SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow in front of the San Luis Obispo, California, courthouse Tuesday, May 29, 2019.

Kania said that if her son is convicted, he'll lose his disability and health insurance, leaving the county psychiatric facility, the only local facility to take Medi-Cal insurance, as his only option for emergency treatment.

Her son has averaged at least one major schizophrenic episode every few months for several years, Kania said.

"We need to address how our DA's Office is prosecuting our mentally ill," Kania said Tuesday. "Being mentally ill shouldn't be a crime, especially when your under a 5150 in (the PHF unit)."

In response to questions from The Tribune, Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said Tuesday that while he can't comment on Perez's ongoing case, SLO County prosecutors always take mental health issues into consideration when determining whether to file charges.

"It's a delicate balance between public safety and the rights of people with mental illness," Dobroth said. "Sometimes (a criminal case) is the only inroad you have to address these issues and get someone's attention."

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The alleged assault in November was the second time in three years Perez has been charged for a physical altercation at the 16-bed psychiatric health facility. The DA's Office filed a misdemeanor battery charge against him in January 2014, which was later dismissed.

According to surveillance video taken of the psychiatric health facility provided to The Tribune by Kania, Perez is seen on Nov. 16, 2017, making aggressive movements around two psychiatric technicians, who at one point pin him against a wall before releasing him.

Perez is then seen aggressively pacing up and down a hallway, shouting and getting in the face of the men before striking one on the right side of his head. The technicians immediately take Perez to the ground, where a struggle ensues for several minutes before police arrive and arrest Perez.

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Technicians restrain Joseph Perez during an episode at the county's psychiatric health facility. Perez was at the facility in November 2017 on a 72-hour involuntary hold. Video screen shot

Trace Milan, Perez's attorney, said Tuesday that the Behavioral Health staffers escalated the situation by first pinning his client to the wall. He also said that Perez slapped the technician with an open hand.

"They put their hands on Joseph first. The No. 1 rule is to deescalate a situation with words," Milan said.

At a preliminary hearing March 28, the psych tech — whom The Tribune is not naming — testified before Superior Court Judge Jesse Marino that Perez was making nonsensical statements about Adolf Hitler and refused to take medication. He said that Perez's strike to his ear didn't hurt, and that he noticed the severity of the injury after the scuffle.

Though Marino reduced the charges, he found probable cause exists to move the case toward trial.

Milan argues the technician fell on his ear while restraining Perez. He says he's made three separate requests for videos of the incident but none show the scuffle and one is missing about 40 seconds of footage.

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Milan and Kania said they both want to see a dismissal of charges or the equivalent of a not guilty by reason of insanity finding.

"The DA has a higher duty and legal training and expertise that they should know that here we have someone on a hold and in crisis," Milan said. "A big part of the job is to ask if this is a proper use of the taxpayers' money and whether this is the right thing to do."

Dobroth said that his office has seen successful outcomes with mentally ill defendants when they and family members work with prosecutors.

"When we're able to work should-to-shoulder with the family, it helps facilitate the process," he said.

Local behavioral health services have been under scrutiny following the death of a schizophrenic County Jail inmate who had languished in the local mental health and criminal justice system for years.

In the last year, the county's treatment of mentally ill patients and inmates has been the subject of several administrative claims and lawsuits, and resulted in a $5 million settlementto the family of deceased inmate Andrew Holland.

In May, the county civil Grand Jury called the local psychiatric facility "antiquated and unsafe" and urged that the county fund improvements.

A trial setting conference for Perez is scheduled for Monday.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1