A homeless man, who claims he was simply panhandling at a South San Francisco laundromat in January, is staring down at five years in state prison for an alleged armed robbery of 50 cents to buy a bottle of beer.
After a full-blown felony trial in a Redwood City courtroom, jurors are deliberating the fate of 42-year-old Stephen Quiles, whose case hinges on whether he robbed his victim or simply begged for money.
Quiles, who has a long arrest history of misdemeanors and has been homeless for a decade, was relaxing on Jan. 7 with his beer in his favorite spot — aSouth San Francisco laundromat on Chestnut Street and El Camino Real.
“It was warm. He was finishing his beer and thinking about his next beer,” Quiles’ attorney Eric Liberman said.
Meanwhile, Ernie Dicicco walked in and began doing his laundry as Quiles fumbled through his pocket for beer money, Liberman said. Earlier in the day, Quiles had picked up a toy gun in a nearby park. While Dicicco loaded the washer, Quiles removed the toy briefly to count his change, then put it back into his pocket, the defense attorney said.
While that explanation was the matter of spirited argument during the day-and-a-half of testimony, nobody disputes what happens next. Quiles walked up to Dicicco and asked for 50 cents. When Dicicco complied, Quiles shook his hand and walked out.
Dicicco called 911, and police arrested Quiles a short time later as he was sipping his new beer back at the laundromat.
During Thursday’s closing arguments, however, Deputy District Attorney Sharon Cho told a much different story. As Quiles pulled the gun out of his pocket, he made eye contact with Dicicco, she said, and the homeless man’s face suddenly became serious. Dicicco was afraid for his life, she told the jury.
“He testified he was afraid he would get shot if he didn’t give him 50 cents,” she said, adding that the amount of money taken or the fact that the gun was a toy did not make the crime any less serious.
“Is the person who looks down the barrel of a fake gun any less victimized than someone looking down the barrel of a real gun?” she asked.
Liberman has questioned why felony charges were filed, much less a full trial conducted in the case.