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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 6:35 pm | Fair 58º


Convicted Check Forger Headed to Prison After Ditching Monitoring Device

Steven Mark Kunes of the Santa Barbara area had cut off his GPS ankle bracelet and fled to Pennsylvania

A convicted check forger who cut off his electronic-monitoring device while serving his sentence had a preliminary hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

Instead, Steven Mark Kunes took a plea deal with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office that will send him to state prison for four years.

Kunes pleaded no contest to one felony count of escape by force, and the allegations of having three prior prison terms were dismissed.

He is scheduled to be sentenced June 5 to a four-year term in addition to his current term, which ends in October, Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota said.

It will be half-time served, for an additional two years, he added.

The maximum term for an escape is three years, but the cutting of the ankle bracelet counts as escape by force, which has a maximum term of six years, according to Cota.

Defense attorney Michael Hanley said the “somewhat Draconian legislation and case law concerning ‘escape by force’ against ‘property’ made it advantageous for Mr. Kunes to settle the case.”

Kunes cut off the ankle device while serving a five-year sentence for grand theft by false pretenses and second-degree commercial burglary for trying to pass bad checks at Montecito Bank & Trust.

He skipped Superior Court hearings while awaiting those charges, and was extradited back to Santa Barbara from New Jersey a few months later.

He was sentenced last May after pleading guilty. Had it happened a few years earlier, he would have served the sentence in state prison, but Assembly Bill 109 made more inmates eligible to serve time in jails instead of prison.

Because the County Jail is overcrowded, he, like many others, was instead put into alternative sentencing.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department operates two alternative-sentencing programs: the electronic monitoring and Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP). Both are open to minimum and medium security offenders, sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.

In April of this year, there was an average of 151 offenders in the electronic-monitoring program, compared to 75 in April 2011, which was before AB 109 was implemented in October of 2011, she said.

Offenders are confined to their homes with many restrictions while being monitored by a GPS ankle device, and every day counts as a day of jail credit, Hoover said.

“A couple years ago, he would have been shipped off to state prison,” Cota said.

On Aug. 22, three weeks after being approved for electronic monitoring, Kunes cut off his device, and authorities tracked its location — it will keep transmitting location until the batteries run out — to the Hope Avenue FedEx Office.

When Santa Barbara police responded, store employees said Kunes had sent a package.

“Sure enough, a few days later, the County Jail received a box from him with the charger and electronic monitoring device inside,” Cota said.

Kunes had been staying at Newhouse III, a sober living home, and then fled to Pennsylvania, where he was contacted by phone and asked to surrender to local authorities, Cota said.

“He said he’d think about it. He didn’t.”

Apparently, Kunes then flew back to the South Coast, and was recognized at a Carpinteria restaurant by a citizen who called police.

Sheriff’s deputies went to arrest him, and found him “sitting at a bar at The Palms drinking a Grey Goose martini,” Cota said.

Part of the plea deal is dependent on Kunes paying Newhouse the money he owes, since the check he sent bounced, Cota said in court.

Since AB 109, “there has been a real sea change as to how people sentenced to state prison are handled,” Cota said.

This is the DA Office’s first prosecution of cutting an electronic monitoring device after the realignment was implemented, but his office expects many more, he said.

“These are people who, a few years ago, would be behind prison walls,” he said.

The state is pushing more inmates on the county, which is already overcrowded and is using more alternative sentencing, he said.

Michelle Lawrence
Michelle Lawrence

“Hopefully the word gets out, that for people awarded the alternative of electronic monitoring to incarceration, it’s vital that the device stays on.”

Minimum-security inmates and low-risk offenders can be placed in alternative sentencing programs and “the District Attorney’s Office will be vigilant in the prosecution of those who violate the law or put the community at risk by removing their electronic monitoring device,” District Attorney Joyce Dudley said in a statement.

Under the realignment legislation, the crime of escape by force has to be served in state prison, not local county jails.

The Sheriff’s Department is still looking for two women who cut off their ankle bracelets. Michelle Lawrence escaped in September 2012 and Sonia Silva escaped in March of this year, Hoover said.

Escaping from electronic monitoring — removing the GPS device or making it inoperable — isn’t very common. There were two escapes in 2011, and both people were returned to custody.

Sonia Silva
Sonia Silva

Of the seven escapes in 2012 and so far this year, only these two women are still at large, Hoover said.

In 2011, the average daily population in alternative sentencing was 164 inmates, with 88 in electronic monitoring and 76 in SWAP.

“In 2012, the first full year of AB 109 implementation, the average daily population in alternative sentencing was 184 inmates,” Hoover said.

Of those inmates, 125 were in the electronic-monitoring program.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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