Q&A: The District Attorney's Office

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The District Attorney's Office prides itself in contributing to Ventura County having the lowest crime rate in any county in Central and Southern California according to the Caifornia Department of Justice.

The office has 267 staff members, and 30 of those positions are currently vacant, according to prosecutors.  Some positions are vacant because of budget cutbacks.  There are 96 authorized prosecutor positions, and 86 of those are filled.  The office has 49 investigators posts and 42 are filled, according to the DA.

The number of authorized prosecutor positions has increased from 91 to 96 attorneys in the last five years.  Some vacant attorney and investigator positions will be filled by the end of the year.

As of November, the District Attorney's has an annual budget ranging from $38.7 million in 2011 to $38.6 million in 2013.

Here,  two Chief Deputy District Attorneys --   Mr. W. Charles Hughes and Mr. Michael  K. Frawley,-- answer questions for the Court Reporter Blog about the office and its policy on drunken driving cases, the problem of delays in filing misdemeanor and felony cases, and whether the office takes a so-called "shotgun" approach in charging defendants. in other words, critics say that the district attorney charges defendants with numerous crimes, often with weak evidence,  just to see what charges will stick in court.

This is the first of a three-part  Q&A series, which will be published today, Wednesday and Friday.

Q:  How many drunken driving cases does the District Attorney's Office handle each year? Has there been an increase in the DUI caseload?

There were 5,457 DUI cases in 2009; 4,493 in 2010 and 3,976 last year, according to prosecutors.

 Fortunately, the number of DUI felony and misdemeanor cases has been decreasing since 2009. Felony DUI cases involve repeat offenders who injure others while driving under the influence. In the most extreme cases, these are people who kill others as a result of a DUI, according Frawley and Hughes.

These examples of felony DUI  include Judith Ramirez who was convicted of murder for killing her 17-year-old daughter, and injuring two others, including her four-year-old son, while driving drunk, they stated.

Another example includes  a mid-trial guilty plea to second-degree murder and other charges by Satnam Singh, who drove while under the influence of alcohol. He killed a 20-year-old man and seriously injured another victim, they state.

Q:  State law allows a person who is arrested for drunken driving to plead guilty to a "Wet Reckless" charge if a prosecutor feels that the DUI case against the defendant has some weaknesses.  This weakness may include when blood or breath results are close to .08, which is the blood-alcohol legal limit, and if a sobriety test that is done in the field by law enforcement is bad.

If a defendant who pleads guilty to a Wet Reckless offense gets another DUI within 10 years, it will be considered a second DUI because the Wet Reckless counted against the person is now like a first-time DUI.

In Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, DUI defendants, in some cases, are allowed to plead guilty to Wet Reckless charges instead of DUI offenses.  Has your office ever considered allowing some DUI suspects to plead guilty to Wet Reckless charges instead of DUI offenses?

The fines and penalties between a DUI and Wet Reckless are pretty significant, said Frawley.  The fine for Wet Reckless is between $145.00 and not more than $1,000.  On the contrary, the fines and fees  for a DUI conviction are just under $5,000, said Frawley.

"The difference in the financial penalties is significant between the two," said Frawley. "That  doesn't even include insurance fees going up and attorney's fees. That just what the court charges them."

Also if you get a Wet Reckless conviction,  the law provides for 12 hours of education on the perils of drunk driving, according to Frawley.  For a DUI conviction, it is going to be 30 hours of education, said Frawley.

In addition, there is no mandatory driver's license suspension for a Wet Reckless conviction.  But a DUI conviction will result in a suspension or restriction of a driver's license as part of probation.  The state Department of Motor Vehicles will then decide whther a person's driver's license is revoked or suspended.

Q:  If Los Angeles and Santa Barbara allow some defendants to plead guilty to Wet Reckless offenses  --  taking into consideration that there are now less court resources and court staff because of the state financial crisis that have impacted California courts and the criminal justice system -- why doesn't  the Ventura County District Attorney's Office consider the use  of Wet Reckless offenses ?

 "We don't want to minimize the seriousness of driving and drinking. There is no need to do that, and if we can't  prove our case, then we don't charge it.  We don't get into this plea bargaining thing, well let's see, this case isn't as robust as another case so we'll give this person a Wet Reckless, and this person, we're going to hold out to get the DUI."

Adding, "Other counties might do it that way but that's not the way we want to do business.  If two people are both guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we want to treat them the same."

The District Attorney's Office isn't going to treat people differently  because one person has a .08 percent drug alcohol reading  and another person blows a .12 percent blood-alcohol.

"They are both guilty of the same thing," said Frawley.

Q:  Do you think that Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties minimize the gravity of drunken driving by  letting some defendants to plead guilty to a Wet Reckless charge?

"It's not for us, at all, to comment how anybody else does business," said Frawley.

Adding, "Just because resources are tight, we are not going to take this less seriously and put the community more at risk. It is a community safety issue."

Q:  Some of the your critics say that this kind of talk -- about being tough on crime and prosecuting anything and everything that -- is  political chest pounding.

The critics note that the whelming majority of cases never go to trial and  plea bargain agreements between defendants and prosecutors happen all the time. More than 95 percent of criminal case filed are resolved through a plea agreement, and cases seldom go to trial.

Can you respond to this?

"One, I'd want to know who are the critics that are saying that because criminal defense attorneys have a financial interest in trying to get the district attorney to lower the price of crime in the county," said Hughes. "And, I am not saying that you can never trust what a criminal defense attorney says. But you have to consider the source.  They have a vested interest in trying to critique the District Attorney's Office into reducing the price of crime."

Adding, "But beyond that. It is not chest thumping. I'd be surprised if you could point to anyone who said we file everything all the time, and it doesn't matter. We use the same filing standards every District Attorney's Office around the state uses. "

Hughes said a criminal complaint is filed against a suspect when there is sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a crime along with taking into consideration foreseeable defenses.

" It's not about 'look at us we're filing everything.' That's not what it's about," said Hughes. "It's not anybody in management that's doing the filing of the cases.  It's the line folks (prosecutors) that are applying that criteria day in and day out."

Adding, "What we don't say, 'okay, you committed a robbery. We'll let you plead to a grand theft because it is easier for everybody.' If you committed a robbery and we can prove it, then you have to plead to a robbery. "

"That is where we draw the line. You are going to have to plead to the most serious thing that you did. We are not going to knock it down to facilitate moving cases,"  Hughes said.

 

 

 

 

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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.