A 38-year-old man accused of breaking into a home in Palm Desert must stand trial on felony charges, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Stephen Eric Cunningham of Palm Desert was charged with four felony counts, one each of burglary, possession of an assault weapon, possessing a firearm with a temporary restraining order, and stalking, according to court records. He was also charged with one misdemeanor count each of violating a court order and possessing controlled substances.
During a preliminary hearing at the Larson Justice Center in Indio, Deputy District Attorney Kelsey Waters told the judge about different instances in which the defendant allegedly instilled fear into his neighbor’s family by harassing them, causing them to get a restraining order against him, before he allegedly broke down a door and entered their home.
Toward the end of the preliminary hearing, Cunningham’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jeffery Economides, asked for the stalking charge to be dismissed because the defendant’s actions were more neighborly than a willful and malicious act.
“There’s a difference between stalking and neighbors who don’t want to be bothered, especially during a pandemic,” Economides said. “The people have not met the element that the defendant made a credible threat with a specific intent to place the other person in a reasonable fear for her safety and they do not demonstrate that the defendant willfully and maliciously harassed. Not saying that the family didn’t feel bothered, but this doesn’t rise to a level of stalking.”
Waters said the defendant’s combination of conduct and having a protective order against him before the alleged break-in should be enough to hold the defendant to answer to the stalking charge.
“He has been harassing the Smiths, making false reports, standing on the front doorstep, so I do think there’s credible threat in this,” Waters said. “The defendant who knew about that criminal protective order … went over, smashed in their front door and entered their home. The Smiths are afraid, there was testimony that they live in fear, that they’re worried about what will ultimately happen.”
At the end of the preliminary hearing, Riverside County Superior Court Judge James Stafford Hawkins discharged the stalking count and ruled that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial for Cunningham on the remaining charges.
A post-preliminary hearing arraignment was set for March 15.
Cunningham forced his way into a residence on Aug. 16, 2022, shortly after 5 a.m., in the 74-400 block of Santolina Drive, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
The homeowners confronted Cunningham before he ran to his own residence nearby, authorities said. Deputies responded to the home, but Cunningham allegedly refused to come out, setting off an hours-long standoff.
He eventually exited the home and was taken into custody.
Cunningham was booked into the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, where he remains held without bail.