Steven Kunes
Paul Wellman (file)

Screenwriter-turned-conman Steven Kunes is headed to prison for at least two and a half years after admitting he cut off his electronic monitoring ankle bracelet last summer.

Kunes had two previous visits to prison already, but in 2012 — after being sentenced for commercial burglary and grand theft by false pretenses — he avoided prison under the state’s realignment legislation, AB 109, which mandated his sentence be served in local jail.

Low-risk offenders have the option of applying for electronic monitoring, which Kunes took advantage of in July 2012 when he was accepted to a home detention program.

But on August 22 of last year, Kunes cut the band that secured the electronic monitoring device to his ankle. When something like that happens, prosecutor Brian Cota said, a message is sent to a detective’s phone and email with the last known location of the device. Detectives were led to a FedEx store, where employees there recognized Kunes as someone who had recently mailed a package.

Lo and behold, a few days later a custody deputy received a package in the mail — the electronic monitoring device. Kunes was located on the East Coast by detectives, who spoke with him and told him to surrender. He told them he’d think about it. He ultimately didn’t, but he made his way back out west, where someone eventually recognized him sitting at the bar at The Palms drinking a Grey Goose martini.

Because he cut the band, Kunes was charged with escape by force — this force being against property. He pleaded no contest.

Deputy Public Defender Michael Hanley, representing Kunes, said the law that makes cutting a bracelet off escape by force was “rather draconian,” but he had a problem more with the legislation than the outcome of the case. The legislation and case law made it advantageous to take the plea deal, Hanley said.

His sentence is not eligible under AB 109 to be served locally, and Kunes will head to prison. He must serve out the remaining prison term — which should end in October, Cota said — and then he will begin his four-year term (of which he will serve two years.)

Under the plea arrangement, Cota said he will not file a charge related to a bounced rent check from Kunes to Newhouse, a men’s living home. Cota dismissed a count of escape as well as prior prison term enhancements, which could have increased the sentence.

Upon Kunes’s original arrest in March 2011, it was discovered that many of the unsolicited commentaries he submitted to various publications around town — Santa Barbara News-Press, Noozhawk, and The Santa Barbara Independent — had been largely plagiarized. The newspapers have since removed his writings from their websites. He also had a habit of not showing up to court appearances. In 1982 Kunes was sued by J.D. Salinger for trying to sell a fake interview with the reclusive author to People magazine.

This was the District Attorney Office’s first post-realignment case where someone escaped from a home detention program. A few years ago, Cota said, Kunes — who will be sentenced on June 5 — would’ve been behind a prison wall the first time around, but the state is pushing the burden onto the counties. “There’s a real sea change in terms of how people are sent to state prison,” he said. There’s an added risk to the community when electronic monitoring is used as opposed to prison time, he said, so it’s crucial the devices are effective.

The DA’s Office will vigilantly prosecute these cases, Cota said, to ensure a stiff penalty follows for those who remove their electronic monitoring devices.

Prison realignment also came under fire Wednesday from former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado — the onetime Santa Maria mayor, state assemblymember, and senator who lost last year to U.S. Representative Lois Capps and is probably running for governor. Maldonado, in a press conference in Sacramento, said he was planning to file a ballot initiative that would repeal California’s prison realignment.

Maldonado has gone after Governor Jerry Brown on the issue in recent weeks, but he ramped up efforts with two press conferences this week. Maldonado, along with some other Republicans, has highlighted crimes they say have been committed by offenders who would have otherwise been behind bars if not for realignment. “It is an issue that affects the quality of life and the safety of every citizen of my home state of California,” Maldonado was quoted as saying.


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