Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Contra Costa County DA is Making a Mistake

But then again, that is my opinion. And we all know what that means.

By the way, what is it with the East Bay. In the past few weeks we've had bad decision after bad decision from that neck of the woods. Most notably we have seen the Oakland Police Department fail to adequately deal with a problem in its ranks. And now we have a District Attorney who seems to be saying that "If you don't give me everything I need, I'm not going to play."

Maybe that is a little unfair. But here are the basics for those who have not been following the news: the Contra Costa County District Attorney, a man by the name of Robert Cochly, has announced that if the proposed budget cut of $1.9 million goes through, he will stop prosecuting certain classes of crimes. According to a memorandum which has been circulated, Cochly's office will no longer prosecute the following types of cases:

  1. Any simple drug possession cases;
  2. Any public intoxication or being under the influence of drugs cases;
  3. All driving offenses which are not DUI cases;
  4. Simple assault and battery cases;
  5. Trespass or loitering cases; and
  6. All other misdemeanor cases not specifically listed as being cases that they will prosecute.
The memorandum goes on to ouline what types of cases they will prosecute at the misdemeanor level. They are:

  1. Driving under the influence;
  2. Domestic Violence;
  3. Firearms cases (i.e. possession or use in a crime);
  4. Vehicular Manslaughter; and
  5. Sexual assault cases
According to the District Attorney's memorandum, they will make a case by case evaluation of any misdemeanor case involving an assault on a police officer or an assault and battery case which results in injury where a weapon was used.

Looking at this in a cynical way, it almost looks like the District Attorney has chosen the most p.c. of crimes (those relating to drug use) and moved them off of his plate because he does not have the budget. He also seems to want to prosecute only the politically correct crimes, such as domestic violence cases and DUI cases (after all who can really ever put up an argument in favor of either?)

But at the same time, he has also moved off his plate protecting people's personal property. Misdemeanor cases involving theft, burglary, fraud (including check fraud), and embezzlement will not be prosecuted if the District Attorney's plan goes into effect. Basically, what the District Attorney is saying is that if, unless you are bleeding from a weapon, then your life and property are not as valuable in his estimation as someone who has been lost a greater dollar amount (since that is the way that theft cases get broken up between misdemeanors and felonies).

A very cynical person would know this District Attorney's political leanings. I do not. I'm just commenting on two things here: 1) How this is a mistake in my opinion and 2) options it appears he is ignoring.

Now, there are some arguments about why this is necessary. First, it was pointed out in the Chronicle, as well as the District Attorney's memo, that the District Attorney's Office in Contra Costa County has been beset by budge cuts for a while. On paper, they have an authorized office strength of 100 deputy district attorneys. There are apparently 72, and that number may drop further. Being a prosecutor is not a cush gig by virtue of being a government. You have to deal with a lot of people. You take crap from everyone including the victims. Unlike what you see on Law and Order, a misdeameanor trial prep sometimes means showing up at the courthouse, receiving a file, having 3 minutes to talk with the arresting officer and witness (if you have one), and then putting on your case after you pick the jury. You get to do that, plus manage a case load which would probably make most other people cry.

It's not an easy job. But it's one that needs to be done. If it's not done, then the system breaks down.

Now, I know its not a magic bullet, and the law of unintended conseques might be that it would hurt him come budget time next year, but I have to wonder why he does not consider using volunteers to staff his misdemeanor cases. In many counties, and in many states, misdemeanor cases are handled by the newest attorneys, in many cases fresh from passing the bar. The reason why? They are typically discrete matters that a novice should be able to tackle with minimal supervision. This is not to say that it is easy, they take skill and knowledge. The best comparison is to look at it as minor leagues in baseball.

However, in looking at the Contra Costa District Attorney's website, I do not see any sort of program. By comparison, I am aware of programs that are run by the U.S. Attorney's Office. They use unpaid volunteers to handle some of their cases.

Now why would I suggest this? In case no one has noticed, there are a lot of lawyers out there looking for work. A few big firms have gone under. More than a few have been laying people off. Unlike working for the public defender's office, which (as much as I am loathe to say) can look bad depending on the type of job you are going for, a volunteer stint at the a district attorney's office would look good for a lot of litigators. You get trial experience. You learn to work under real pressure (as opposed to a partner's pressure). You learn to put together a case to win.

However, it looks like Mr. Cochly would rather cut back, then admit he has to take on volunteers, or to even consider the idea.

This is just my idea. Seems better than just not prosecuting crimes.


Blue Boy said...

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has decided that they can't or don't wish to pay for the prosecution of all crimes in Contra Costa County. Given that is so, somebody has to make a decision somehow about what crimes should be prosecuted and which crimes should not be prosecuted. This prosecutor has make a clear decision.

AngryBell said...

I'm not saying that there should not be prosecutorial discretion. Believe me, I am all in favor of that.

What I am saying, is that I believe that the Contra Costa DA is making a mistake. I'm not absolving the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

The mistake, I think, is to announce publicly that whole classifications of crimes will not be prosecuted is a mistake. I think that they should explore other alternatives to this.

Colby said...

As someone who was seated as a juror on a first degree murder trial last year in Contra Costa County, I experienced the disgustingly inefficient way their court system is run. I would think that both the DA and the Supervisors could perhaps implement some new efficiency practices before the line item exclusion of certain crimes. My judge slept through half of our trial, and so we were all forced to repeat the last 10 minutes any time an evidentiary/objectionable ruling was required - wake the judge up, pretend like he hadn't been sleeping, and do it all over again. I'm just saying even some small improvements could have been made first.