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Gunfire Law Violators Get Slap on Wrist

Times Staff Writer

After endorsing a ballyhooed 1988 state law permitting felony prosecution for firing a gun into the air to celebrate holidays, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office last week filed misdemeanor charges against about two dozen people suspected of violating the law on New Year’s Eve, officials said.

Starting Monday, however, department officials ordered a review of all such cases with the intention of upgrading them to felonies, according to Gregory Thompson, chief deputy district attorney. In the meantime, some cases may already be closed because those charged pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, he said.

“There were a couple days we were trying to get our sea legs on this,” Thompson acknowledged. “The first few days, we decided to let it rest with the discretion of the individuals filing the cases and see what the experience with the judiciary would be.”

New DA Orders

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However, after calls from police and the press that had promulgated advisories warning that midnight shootings could lead to prison, deputy district attorneys were ordered to treat them as felonies unless circumstances warranted otherwise, officials said.

The law, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), makes it illegal to “willfully discharge a firearm in a grossly negligent manner that could result in injury or death to a person.” It is known in law enforcement circles as “a wobbler,” a statute that can be filed either as a misdemeanor or as a felony.

“To prosecute as a felony, when appropriate, was the whole point of this legislation,” said Deborah Ortiz, legislative assistant to Polanco. “We are clearly happy they are re-evaluating.”

In many Los Angeles neighborhoods on New Year’s Eve and on the Fourth of July, gun owners fire handguns, shotguns and sometimes machine guns into the air. Police received 460 reports of such gunplay on New Year’s Eve, 1988. Often, people blocks away are injured or even killed by falling bullets.

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No statistics as to the number of reports, arrests or charges in such cases are yet available for this year, officials said.

Starting four years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department launched a campaign aimed at curtailing such gunplay. This year the Sheriff’s Department sent out fliers reminding citizens that they could go to state prison under the new law. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office went on record in Sacramento as supporting the bill.

“Between now and July 4, which is another holiday when this problem exists,” said Cmdr. Bill Booth, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, “the whole justice system is going to have to give this some thought.”

Booth said the LAPD had booked at least a dozen suspects on felony charges filed by the district attorney as misdemeanors. But, he added, “there’s no controversy between us and the DA on this . . . we are glad that they’re taking another look at this (the cases), though.”

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As a practical matter, prosecutors said, most people charged under the new law are first-offenders and are unlikely to be sentenced to the time in state prison the law allows. Under prior laws making it a misdemeanor to discharge a firearm in the city, someone could go to jail for six months, officials said.

“I don’t believe we’re going to get state prison sentences on a first-offense felony,” said Larry Trapp, assistant director of branch and area operations for the district attorney. “The maximum misdemeanor sentence is 12 months. And the low end of state prison (for felony) is 16 months.”


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