CARLSBAD — A judge found enough evidence Dec. 3 at preliminary hearing in a Vista Superior Court to order a young mother to stand trial on child abuse charges after cocaine was found in her daughter’s system.
Judge William S. Dato said the determining factor to bind over Laura Hernandez, 24, on the single felony count of child abuse came from the small trace of cocaine doctors found in her 3-year-old daughter’s system.
Hernandez pleaded not guilty to the charge, which stems from the Sept. 17 arrest of five other people, including her husband and father, in connection with a large scale cocaine operation spread between two Carlsbad residences on Magnolia Avenue and Pine Avenue.
If convicted, Hernandez faces up to seven years in prison, Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Oliphant said outside the courtroom. A trial date was scheduled for Jan. 20. Her next court appearance is a Dec. 31 readiness conference.
Hernandez’s attorney, Lynn Behymer, argued that his client was in a “vulnerable” position due to the patriarchal structure of her family and her being an illegal citizen. Behymer had unsuccessfully argued to have Hernandez’s charge dropped to a misdemeanor.
“It’s not unreasonable to see why she didn’t take a lot of affirmative action to stop the illegal activities,” Behymer said.
On the other hand, Oliphant argued that Hernandez knew about the “huge enterprise” and failed to protect her 3-year-old child from gaining access to the drug.
“She had an obligation to protect her daughter and she didn’t do a good job of it,” Oliphant said.
Hernandez’s daughter had 54 nanograms of cocaine in her system when a urine test was conducted on the child at Children’s Hospital following the bust, testified Carlsbad police Detective Eric Hoppe. He said the pediatrician who treated the toddler said she wouldn’t have picked up the drug by just being in the same room with the drug or through inhalation, if the cocaine was smoked.
Oliphant said it hasn’t been determined how the child ingested the cocaine. Despite the small amount of cocaine in the child’s system — a nanogram is one billionth of a gram — when it involves a child any amount can be harmful, the prosecutor said.
“I think anytime there is cocaine in a child’s system that can never be a healthy living situation,” Oliphant said. “I don’t take a lot of stock in the numbers, it’s the fact that the cocaine is accessible to the kid.”
The five co-defendants in the case all accepted plea bargains, including another mother, Yahaira P. Covatrubias, 26, who pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and received four years probation.
The defendant’s father Luis E. Hernandez, 48, her brother Salvador Hernandez, 27, and her husband Carlos Montano, 28, each pleaded guilty to a single felony count of possession for sale and were sentenced to 18 months to two years in prison. Hernandez’s stepmother, Lizarraga Catalina, 45, pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine, a felony for which she received three years probation.