Judge Blocks Key Criminal Justice Reforms of LA District Attorney

A Los Angeles County judge chafed at District Attorney George Gascón’s “disregard” for a portion of California’s Three Strikes law and his plan to order his prosecutors to drop the pursuit of sentencing enhancements.

New Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón takes the oath of office on Dec. 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy George Gascón)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón ran for his office on a platform of criminal justice reform, beating out the incumbent this past November. On Monday, his first round of reform-minded policies hit a roadblock with an LA County judge.

A union representing deputy district attorneys in Gascón’s office sued him and the county this past December. They claim if they followed the new policies, they would violate California’s “Three Strikes” law passed by California voters in 1994.

LA County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant agreed, at least partly.

“The district attorney’s disregard of the Three Strikes ‘plead and prove’ requirement is unlawful, as is requiring deputy district attorneys to seek dismissal of pending sentencing enhancements without a lawful basis,” Chalfant writes in a 46-page ruling.

While Chalfant temporarily blocked several of Gascón’s policies, he said the DA can bar prosecutors from seeking sentencing enhancements in future criminal cases. Enhancements can apply in cases where a defendant committed a robbery with a gun or when there is a known gang affiliation. Under California’s Three Strikes Law, anyone convicted of two criminal charges can see an enhancement tack on 25 years to life to their sentence.

The lawsuit and Chalfant’s ruling put a crimp, at least for now, in Gascón’s pursuit to overhaul the LA DA’s office into one that is less punitive toward criminal defendants — something he vowed on the campaign trail.  On his first day in office last December, he rolled out a bevy of directives for his staff including policies to address racial inequality and emphasize rehabilitation.

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), which represent 800 county prosecutors, sued to block several of Gascón’s first-day directives. In its lawsuit, the union said they have a ministerial duty to “allege all prior convictions under the Three Strikes Law.”

Chalfant agreed Gascón’s directive runs afoul of state law.

“The district attorney has abandoned the Three Strikes law through the special directives that prevent deputy district attorneys from pleading and proving strike priors as required by section 667(f)(1). As demonstrated by the plain language of the Three Strikes law and case law, this direction is unlawful,” he wrote.

Chalfant ruled Gascón’s special directives cannot legally compel a county prosecutor to move to dismiss a strike “based on antipathy to the Three Strikes law” and cannot move to strike enhancements without legal grounds.

At Gascón’s direction, when a line prosecutor files to drop an enhancement they must read a statement from the DA’s office that explains the new policy. But Chalfant found the statement is “legally inaccurate and incomplete and reading this statement in court without correction is unethical,” and agreed line prosecutors who follow through on these policies could face repercussions.

“For the Three Strikes law, the court accepts ADDA’s discussion of harm to its members. The special directives require unlawful conduct and an attorney’s violation of law during litigation is unethical,” Chalfant wrote. “There is clear harm to a deputy district attorney from following the special directives for strike priors, including possible sanctions, contempt, and State Bar discipline.

 “There is a real prospect of sanctions and an employee should not be forced to choose between his or her job and complying with the law.”

The DA’s office can decline seek enhancements on new cases.

“It is less likely that a criminal court will berate a prosecutor for not filing an enhancement that was never charged than for seeking dismissal of one,” Chalfant wrote.

Chalfant did note, however, that the promises Gascón to voters — and his subsequent win at the ballot box — carries some weight in the case.

“While the district attorney will suffer no personal harm, the public interest strongly weighs in his favor,” Chalfant wrote. “He has almost unfettered discretion to perform his prosecutorial duties and the public expects him to evaluate the benefits and costs of administering justice in prosecuting crimes. He was elected on the very platform he is trying to implement and any intrusion on this prosecutorial discretion is not in the public interest unless clearly warranted.”

At least judging from the preliminary injunction, Chalfant found the intrusion warranted.

In a statement, ADDA said the case is not about the law as currently written, not what Gascón thinks it should be.

“The district attorney, as is his right, may choose to appeal the court’s decision, and we respect that. However, as the court ruling makes clear, this decision was based on what the law is and not what an officeholder thinks it should be,” the union said in their statement.

Gascón’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.

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