Results tagged “W. Charles Hughes” from The Court Reporter

Q&A: The District Attorney's Office - Part II - Screening Criminal Cases

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There are thousands of misdemeanor and felony cases filed by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office every year.

There are  86 prosecutors who work at the office, and currently, the DA is hiring more attorneys to fill its authorized ranks of 96 authorized positions.

In 2009, the office handled 4,562 felonies and 19,743; in 2010, there were 4,160 felonies filed and 17,331 and in 2011, there were 4,101 felony and 15,011 misdemeanors filed.

Through 2011, the number of both felony and misdemeanor cases has been decreasing in accordance with local and national crimes statistics, according to prosecutors.

The DA's office says the crime decrease is due to many reasons including changing community demographics, improved sophistication in police crime-fighting techniques, improved anti-theft technology in automobiles and increased prison sentences.

Here, Chief Deputy District Attorneys - Mr. W. Charles "Chuck" Hughes and Mr. Michael Frawley  -- answer questions about how these cases are screened and when charges are filed against defendants.

Q: How are misdemeanor and felony cases screened by your office? Take me through the process. Who looks at the reports from law enforcement to determine whether a criminal complaint should be filed against a suspect by the District Attorney's Office?

Frawley explained how the process works: six law enforcement agencies in the county submit incident reports on an alleged crimes, the vast majority  being  general misdemeanors and general felonies.

"We have reviewing (DA)  deputies. That's their job all day long is to look at misdemeanor cases or felony cases and see what's been presented is a provable case, and whether it should be prosecuted," said Frawley.

If it gets filed as a criminal complaint and the defendant doesn't plea  guilty at arraignment --  he noted  that the vast majority of criminal cases do --  then,  the case gets assigned to a prosecutor, according to Frawley.

The prosecutor who is assigned the case reviews it again to make sure it is a provable case, said Frawley.

And if the prosecutor doesn't think he can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, Frawley said, "their job is to go to their supervisor and say, 'I think I've got a case that is not provable.' So at least two sets of eyes would be on every case before it  went to trial."

A supervisor always reviews a case before it goes to trial, said Frawley.

"So that is a third set of eyes that would look and evaluate that case before it ever went to trial," said Frawley.

Hughes added that most felony cases goes through a preliminary hearing and after a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor makes notes about the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing.

"And that's going to be round tabled at a meeting, including the supervisor of that unit and the members of that unit. They are all going to have input, 'hey, is this a case we have sufficient evidence that we should proceed.'"

He said: "Some of the cases don't get filed after a preliminary hearing. Most of them do."

Also Frawley said sometimes after a preliminary hearing and after the round table meetings, some of the criminal charges could be dismissed.

Q: Critics say that once a case is filed by police that prosecutors use a so-called  "shot-gun" approach in charging defendants.  In other words, the district attorney piles criminal charges against defendants with little or no evidence to justify doing so.

An example might be a parking lot fistfight, which can be turned into a felony by simply tagging the legal words "likely to produce great bodily injury" to a misdemeanor battery crime.

Critics say that this action results in defendants having to pay higher bails to get out of jail, cases lingering in the criminal justice system, and in most instances, these crimes that are eventually dismissed or defendants are allowed to plead to lesser charges.

This is a waste of the limited resources and time of the Ventura County Superior Court, which has seen the cut in staff and hours as a result of the state's financial crisis, the critics say.

How do you respond to this?

Hughes denies that this happens at the District Attorney's Office.

"Do we, as a matter of practice, take a 'hey, let's file everything and coerce a guy into pleading to something less approach?'" Absolutely not. We just don't do that."

Adding, "and you're right I've heard those types of criticisms all over the state, all over the nation.  You watch CNN when there is a high profile trial, and somebody is there in front of the camera talking about prosecutors who overcharge. That is a common misconception."

Adding, "if you speak to most prosecutors, they'll tell you that's their worst fear,  that is, convicting somebody of something they didn't really do. I have no interest in doing that. There is nothing to be gained by overcharging somebody."

Hughes said this approach would harm the criminal justice system.

"What happens sometimes is that during the course of the case additional information comes to light. Sometimes it's through our own investigation, sometimes the witnesses tell us things, sometimes, the defense discovers things or knows things that they tell us about. And, we always reevaluate things and at the end of the day, just short of trial, sometimes the case looks very different then it did when it came in."

Sometimes, felony charges are reduced to misdemeanors as the case goes through the process or more felony crimes are tacked on to the criminal complaint, according to Hughes.

Part Two on Friday:  The issue of "Missing Complaints."

 

 

The Court Reporter
Raul Hernandez has spent years writing stories about the drama that unfolds in the courtroom. Here he answers common questions, share some insights on the judicial system and passes along some of the little things that make the Ventura County courts an interesting place to be. You can contact him at rhernandez@vcstar.com.