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Fresno County judge reprimanded by state for fourth time

A Fresno County Superior Court judge will not be thrown off the bench for having a friend accused of domestic violence released from jail early because he didn't know he couldn't do that, a state commission announced Tuesday.

Apparently relying on his experience a Fresno County sheriff's deputy and stories from colleagues, Judge James Petrucelli believed it was legal to allow his friend, suspected of felony domestic violence, to be released  on his own recognizance less than a day after his arrest, the state Commission on Judicial Performance wrote in his censure, issued Tuesday.

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Petrucelli's move was nicknamed an "honor release," the commission wrote, and it's been prohibited since a law enacted in 1999 required felony domestic violence suspects to appear in open court before they can be released. Marsy's Law in 2008 also requires judges to consider a victim's safety before releasing a suspect -- another move Petrucelli failed to take, the commission noted.

The censure states that Petrucelli called the jail and asked about Jay Ghazar's potential release about 12 hours after Ghazar had been arrested.  Ghazar was arrested on a Friday night and would have been in jail through the weekend. He was released the next morning instead.

As it turns out, there's no paperwork in the jails or in court for an "honor release," the commission wrote. When Petrucelli offered to sign whatever documents were required to have Ghazar's case go through the proper channels, jail and court staff were flummoxed. The issue was ultimately brought to Fresno County's presiding judge, who confronted Petrucelli.

The report described Petrucelli's reaction as "shocked" and "dumbfounded" that he'd done something wrong. It noted that Petrucelli is active in the community and has worked to help victims of domestic violence.

But for judges, the appearance of corruption can be just as damaging as actual malfeasance, the commission noted.

Petrucelli and Ghazar were friends through a men's cigar club in Fresno that meets every couple of months, the report said. The club is called HBC -- Having Big Cigars -- and has 10 to 13 members. When Ghazar was arrested he called HBC member and attorney Jonathan Netzer, who reached out to Petrucelli for advice.

After deputies in jail ran Petrucelli's request up the hierarchy, Ghazar was released. The judge also gave Ghazar the phone number for a defense attorney days later at a social event.

Tuesday's censure was the harshest discipline in Petrucelli's judicial career, which includes a public admonishment in 2007 and advisory letters in 2001 and 2002, and the only reprimand possible short of removing him from the bench, the commission stated.

He violated several cannons of the state judiciary, including prejudicial misconduct, the commission ruled.

The censure said that Petrucelli's failure to learn the current laws was "exceptionally careless and irresponsible" but didn't show "conscious disregard or utter indifference" for a "corrupt purpose."

As for Ghazar, he ultimately pleaded no contest to false imprisonment with violence and criminal contempt of court for violating a court order.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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