Volume of Crime Allows Many Suspects to Go Free : Law: Police blame D.A. for not pressing charges. Prosecutors cite poor police work, crowded courts.
Last year, four in every 10 adult suspects arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for the most serious crimes had either felony or misdemeanor charges filed against them.
A decade ago, the filing rate was double that, department records show.
Discretion exercised by prosecutors, The Times found, is a major factor.
Certain felonies that once were tickets to state prison today are rejected for prosecution by the district attorney’s office. They are sent instead to the city attorney as possible misdemeanor filings--for which the guilty usually serve no more than a few weeks in jail.
Similarly, the city attorney’s office has become more selective, pursuing with less vigor many minor violations of the law--from bounced checks to the theft of video rental movies.
With the number of arrests on the rise, many prosecutors say they must exercise greater discretion when choosing which criminal cases to file in court and which to discount or dismiss altogether.
The bottom line, court and police records show, is a boon for many who break the law.
In 1970, 30% of all adult suspects arrested in Los Angeles for so-called Part I crimes--homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and vehicle theft--had felony charges filed against them. By 1980, the rate dropped to 21%. By 1989, it was 17%.
The percentage of misdemeanor charges resulting from Part I arrests has declined even more dramatically--from 60% in 1980 to 23% in 1989, Police Department records show.
Neither Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner nor City Atty. James K. Hahn could explain the declines.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, meanwhile, said he was “perplexed and disturbed” after being shown computer-generated charts prepared by The Times, based on annual Police Department statistics, demonstrating the decline.
“I didn’t realize the data had changed that much,” Gates said. “That’s a real indicator to me that either we’re not doing the job in providing good arrests or good investigators, or we’re not getting the attention from the prosecutors that we should be getting. . . . “
Gates has ordered an internal inquiry.
A Police Department statistician last week theorized that a 1986 change in the department’s methods of tabulating arrest data may be skewing the filing rates. A police spokesman said that percentages also may have been affected by a 1986 law requiring officers to make arrests in domestic violence situations, even when prosecution is unlikely.
Several deputy district attorneys, however, said that if anyone or anything is to blame for the decline in criminal filing rates, it may be the police themselves.
With arrests increasing, the quality of many Police Department investigations has declined, prosecutors said, leaving them little choice but to reject outright or try to settle by plea bargain a growing number of cases that cannot be won in court.
Last year, the district attorney’s office filed a case in which a convicted robber on parole, Orlando Hawkins, was accused of aiming a shotgun at a retired Los Angeles police officer and his son, then robbing them of their sports car. When the case was assigned to Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Latin, he said he soon discovered that the investigation was “kind of screwed up.”
Latin said the police had shown the victims a photographic lineup of six suspects known as a “six pack.” Both victims picked Hawkins. The photo of Hawkins’ head, however, “was three times as big as everybody else’s,” according to the prosecutor.
As other weaknesses in the case became apparent, Latin said, he tried to avoid a trial by offering Hawkins progressively lower prison terms. The initial offer was 28 years in prison, according to Hawkins’ lawyer, Richard Millard. Latin’s last offer would have required Hawkins to do about a year in custody.
Hawkins rejected each offer, insisting he was innocent. The case eventually went before a jury, and he was found not guilty.
“The detective in that case was horrible,” Latin said. “He left town (on vacation) with a bunch of unanswered questions, went to some lake somewhere with no telephone, and just kind of left everything hanging.”
The detective assigned to the case, Jerry Anslow, disputed Latin’s assertion.
“That’s bull crap,” said Anslow, a 29-year police veteran. “I’ve never been inaccessible for any case. I’ve (cut short) vacations because of cases.”
Anslow acknowledged that the mug shot he used of Hawkins was larger than other photographs shown to the victims. The photo, which was the only one available, came from another police agency whose mug shots “were a little bigger than ours,” Hawkins said.
“These D. A.s are just looking for ways to get out from under the tremendous amount of work they have,” Anslow said. “There’s no preparation for three-quarters of the cases because they have too many cases.”
Other detectives bristle at assertions that they have slacked off.
“Prosecutorial discretion is the biggest problem in the system today,” snapped Detective Zvonko G. (Bill) Pavelic of Southwest station. “They will only file cases that my 10-year-old son could successfully prosecute.”
In May, Pavelic investigated a case in which two 13-year-old girls walking to the Crenshaw Mall accepted a ride from three men in a passing car. The girls were driven to an apartment, ordered to strip and robbed of their jewelry, police said. One of the girls was raped by one of the men. The other was ordered to perform fellatio but fled the apartment.
Both girls were later able to identify all three suspects. When officers searched the apartment, they found jewelry belonging to the girls.
Pavelic interviewed one of the suspects, Travis Lane, 20, who admitted that he had sex with the 13-year-old, but said it was consensual.
When the case was submitted to the district attorney’s sex crimes unit for prosecution, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lydia C. Bodin declined to file charges, records show. On her “charge evaluation work sheet” Bodin wrote that the 13-year-old alleged victim ". . . appears to be 20 yrs. old. Both victim and witness appear to be lying. I now have four versions of this case.”
Pavelic, however, said there were no inconsistencies when he interviewed both victim and witness.
“There is no question in my mind this girl was raped,” Pavelic said. “And what difference does it make how old somebody looks? She’s a 13-year-old girl!”
Even though Lane admitted to having sex with a minor, which in itself is a felony, the prosecutor told The Times that she decided not to file charges because of inconsistencies in the case.
The alleged victim, Bodin said, “laughed during the course of the interview. I see victims come in here with nervous laughter, but this was problematic. . . . I can’t file charges if I don’t have a clear idea what happened.”
Weeks later, other Southwest station detectives presented Bodin with another case in which a 14-year-old girl had been raped at gunpoint before Pavelic’s investigation. The victim in the second case also identified her assailant as Travis Lane.
This time, Bodin filed rape charges against Lane--not only in the case of the 14-year-old, but in the matter of the 13-year-old girl whose case she had rejected earlier.
Lane in September agreed to plead guilty to the charge of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 and received a maximum 8-year prison term.
Why did Bodin wait until she reviewed the second rape to file charges against Lane? With the second rape, Bodin said, she was able to establish a pattern of behavior that strengthened both cases.
Bodin said her decision to reject Pavelic’s rape case had nothing to do with the fact that she was handling more than a dozen others at the time. “It has to do with the quantum and quality of the evidence,” she said.
Pavelic is hardly convinced. The district attorney’s office, he said, increasingly finds excuses to reject sex crime cases outright or refer them to the city attorney’s office for possible filing as misdemeanor sexual battery.
Police Department records show that 44% of suspects arrested 10 years ago for rape were charged with that crime or other felonies. By last year, the filing rate had dropped to 28%.
“Nobody,” said Pavelic, “cares about victims anymore.”
Bodin disputed the detective’s assertion.
“Rape is a tremendously devastating crime,” she said. “If we get a fileable case, we file it.”
On the 17th floor of the Criminal Courts Building outside the district attorney’s offices, Los Angeles police detectives sit in a waiting room, flipping impatiently through home improvement magazines, talking shop or simply staring at their shoes.
Like patients dreading their turn in the dentist’s chair, some detectives squirm as they wait for the next available deputy district attorney to consider their cases.
It can sometimes be a long wait--and a fruitless one.
Many detectives complain that these prosecutors, called “filing deputies,” who do nothing but review case files, are increasingly reluctant to file felony charges against suspected criminals arrested by the Police Department.
Several months ago, waiting to have a $400,000 forgery case considered for filing, Detective Tony Sanchez rolled his eyes when the D. A.'s receptionist told him that Allen S. Tyson was the next available filing deputy. “Great,” Sanchez muttered.
Tyson has such a reputation for turning down cases that some detectives have dubbed him “Mr. Reject.”
Inside his small office, Tyson was kicked back in his desk chair, talking on the telephone to a friend. He did not bother glancing at Sanchez or a Times reporter accompanying him that day. The detective opened his briefcase and handed over five copies of his report, the number required by D. A. policy.
Without looking up, Tyson casually flipped through the paper work while chatting on the phone about his girlfriend, his 11-year-old son and scuba diving in the Caribbean.
Sanchez grew so frustrated with waiting that he left to smoke a cigarette. Finally, after more than 15 minutes, Tyson hung up the phone, then looked up and demanded, “How in the world could somebody issue four $100,000 cashier’s checks without asking for any ID?”
When informed that he was asking the question of a reporter and not a detective, Tyson said, “Oh,” and appeared to blanch.
Upon Sanchez’s return, Tyson filed charges in the case.
Tyson, who said that he is proud to be known as “Mr. Reject,” readily acknowledged that he has “a tendency” to reject many cases that might be filed by other deputy district attorneys.
“I don’t believe in filing a case just because the cop thinks that the guy’s going to plead (guilty),” Tyson said. “If we can’t make the case, I don’t file it. It means I’m doing my job, that I’m not a rubber stamp for the cops.”
Many detectives say the district attorney’s office today almost routinely declines to file charges in so-called “one-on-one” cases--where there is a victim and a suspect but no evidence or witnesses to substantiate either side.
“We had one case,” said Lt. Richard A. LeGarra at Northeast station. “Maid sees a guy coming out of the house next door with a VCR. She jots down his license plate. Police respond, check the plate. The guy’s a burglar. The D. A. says one-on-one--no corroborating evidence, no fingerprints, (stolen) property is not found. No case. So now the guy’s back out on the streets.
“How do you explain that to a citizen?”
The explanation offered by prosecutors is that crimes without evidence or corroborating witnesses can be extremely difficult to prove in court. Why waste time with a weak case, they say, when there are so many others where the chances of securing a conviction are greater?
“We’re going to file cases where we believe we can win it and where we have the right guy,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Norman J. Shapiro, who supervises that section of the D. A.'s office through which criminal cases are filed in court.
Officers complain that a suspect arrested today while driving a stolen automobile in Los Angeles need only claim that he “borrowed” it from a stranger to avoid felony vehicle theft charges. Invariably, they say, the district attorney’s office will reject the case and refer it to the city attorney’s office for possible filing as a misdemeanor.
Filed as a felony, vehicle theft is punishable by as many as three years in state prison. As a misdemeanor, it is good for no more than a year in county jail.
Shapiro denied that the district attorney’s office routinely rejects car theft cases. He acknowledged, however, that in some instances, cases are rejected when it cannot be proved that a suspect took the car or drove it knowing it was stolen.
Cases involving car break-ins, officers say, are given even less attention by prosecutors.
Officers assigned to the Police Department’s K-9 unit tell of an August, 1989, incident in which they arrested a suspect caught burglarizing a vehicle in a West Los Angeles towing yard.
When officers checked records, they discovered that the suspect, Alejandro Chavez, had been arrested three weeks before in the same lot for the very same crime but that the district attorney’s office had declined to file charges for unspecified reasons.
“The D. A.'s office should be commended for their total lack of integrity or job performance,” Officer Larry Mallet wrote in a report after the arrest. “Their inability to exercise their responsibilities has become nothing less than a joke.”
Even after the second break-in, there are no court records indicating that the district attorney filed charges against Chavez.
A person who steals anything worth more than $400 in California can be charged with grand theft, a felony that carries a maximum three-year prison term.
But in Los Angeles, officials in the district attorney’s office say they have neither the time nor the attorneys to pursue grand theft cases unless the item that has been stolen is worth more than $1,000. Moreover, if it is a suspect’s first theft-related arrest, they say, the loss generally must exceed $2,000 before grand theft charges will be filed.
“If it’s his first offense and it’s a $4,000 loss,” said R. J. Fox, a burglary detective supervisor in the Rampart area, “I know it’s going to go to the city attorney as a misdemeanor.”
California law also allows those who have been previously convicted of theft to be charged with “petty theft with a prior,” a felony that carries a maximum three years in prison.
The district attorney, however, generally will not file those cases, referring them instead to the city attorney, according to Shapiro of the D. A.'s office.
“Twenty years ago, if somebody committed a $500-to-$1,000 theft, they would have likely gone to prison,” he said. “There are felonies that citizens probably think should be treated as felonies that we don’t deal with anymore. What can I say? It’s not like the D. A. can do any more than we’re already doing.”
In the last 10 years, the district attorney’s caseload has more than doubled. Last year, more than 51,000 felony cases were filed in Superior Court.
Police officers have become so familiar with what felonies the district attorney will and will not not accept, that they routinely “bypass” the D. A.'s office, submitting to the city attorney hundreds of cases each week that are then prosecuted as misdemeanors in Municipal Court.
“We are,” said Deputy City Atty. Jacquelyn R. Mason, “a trash can for the D.A.”
Of 173,327 misdemeanors prosecuted by the city attorney’s office in fiscal 1988-89, 38,976 began as felony arrests referred by the district attorney or the Police Department. Many of those cases included sexual assaults, robberies, shooting into inhabited dwellings, vehicle thefts, narcotics violations and burglaries.
“If your grandfather’s watch is stolen, it should be treated as a felony,” said Assistant City Atty. Maureen R. Siegel, acting head of the city attorney’s central trials section. “But if it’s stolen in Los Angeles, it’ll probably be filed as a misdemeanor. . . . The system is under a lot of pressure and has had to adjust.”
Misdemeanors generally are punishable by no more than a year in county jail.
City Atty. Hahn, however, pointed out that it is often more worthwhile to prosecute “wobblers"--crimes that can be either felonies or misdemeanors--in Municipal Court because judges there are inclined to take such cases more seriously.
“A Superior Court judge may have just finished a death penalty case,” Hahn explained. “You bring him a wobbler and he’s going to say, ‘Hey, what’s the big deal?’ He might give (the defendant) straight probation.”
Like the district attorney, the city attorney’s office has been hard pressed to keep up with its yearly caseload, which has grown by more than 50% since 1980. The number of city attorney prosecutors, meanwhile, stands at 347, about 30% more than a decade ago.
“We’re trying to lessen the number of cases that we are dealing with that are no big deal in the scheme of things--cases where nothing’s going to happen to the people even if we get a conviction . . . ,” Hahn said. “We have to draw the line somewhere. We only have so many attorneys.”
Thus it is, Hahn said, that his office usually declines to prosecute accused shoplifters unless the items that they are suspected of having stolen are worth more than "$10 or $15.”
In addition, if a person walks into a movie rental shop in Los Angeles today, checks out an armful of videocassettes and never returns them, the city attorney will not file misdemeanor theft charges unless the combined value of the tapes exceeds $400.
“We used to play collections agency,” said Assistant City Atty. Alice Hand, who helps shape the office’s filing practices, “but we don’t have time anymore.
“When I started 11 years ago as a filing deputy, I would spend all my time processing gamblers, beggars, drunk in public, blocking public sidewalks. Now, we hardly ever prosecute for those crimes.”
Instead, many suspects are issued citations and not taken into custody.
Moreover, Hand said, the city attorney’s policy is that suspects convicted today of nonviolent misdemeanors, ranging from car theft to trespass, are not required to serve any jail time if they have posted bail or otherwise been released from jail before sentencing.
“You probably aren’t going to get them to plead guilty if you say, ‘Come back (to court) so we can put you back in jail,’ ” Hand said. “You have to have an incentive to get them to come back and plead guilty.”
People who write checks without sufficient funds in their bank accounts also get a break today from the city attorney. Victims who have been defrauded must first show that they have received at least two bad checks from the suspect, and those checks must total $200 or more before the city attorney will file charges, Hand said.
In addition, according to city attorney filing policy, the checks cannot be more than a year old. The hitch, Hand and others say, is that after a victim complains to the Police Department, a year or more can pass before fraud detectives can get to the case and seek charges.
“We’re being very selective in the cases we work because we just can’t handle them all,” said Lt. Fred Reno, who commands 20 detectives assigned to the Police Department’s fraud section.
“Ten years ago, I felt I had a sufficient number of people. Today, I don’t. Our problem is the same as everyone else. We need more people.”
Many of the cases handled by Reno’s investigators are filed by the district attorney’s major frauds unit, whose job is to ensure that sophisticated, white collar criminals receive maximum prosecutorial attention. However, the district attorney’s unit has become more selective in which cases it will accept and, in the process, has devalued many crimes.
Reno said that 10 years ago the D. A.'s special unit would take on a case if the fraud involved $20,000 or more. Today, Reno said, the minimum is usually $100,000.
Even when cases end up in criminal court, victims often achieve little satisfaction in the end.
With prosecutors concerned about more serious offenses, suspects accused of these so-called “paper crimes” often end up having to do little or no time in custody, records show.
That was the bottom line in the case against James L. Dunson, the former manager of five Popeye’s Chicken restaurants, records show.
In February, 1989, Dunson began submitting the names of fictitious employees to Mangen Enterprises, the company that owned the restaurants. The company issued payroll checks, which Dunson then forged and deposited in his own bank account.
When owner Howard Mangen uncovered the fraud after five months, he said he fired Dunson and called the Police Department. The response, Mangen said, was not quite what he expected.
“It took them quite a while to get to it and then I had to do all their work for them--up to and including finding the guy,” Mangen said. “There are more important, more pressing problems--the courts are crowded with bigger cases. That’s what I was told constantly.”
Finally, in November, 1989, Dunson was arrested and charged with forgery and grand theft, each charge punishable by a maximum three years’ in prison. He was released on bail.
Six months later, Dunson worked out a deal with the district attorney’s office and agreed to plead guilty. Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan placed Dunson on probation and ordered him to pay back Mangen.
The only time Dunson would serve for his first felony conviction would be the few hours he spent behind bars before posting bail the day of his arrest. For soliciting a prostitute in 1982, a misdemeanor, Dunson got 14 days in jail, probation records show.
“You have to look at the big picture,” Tynan said of Dunson’s most recent sentence. “If you look at what’s being tried . . . you understand why we really can’t waste a whole lot of time on these kinds of cases. We are so burdened with serious crime that the smaller property crimes simply cannot be processed.
“The only way to make the system work is to negotiate pleas and give the defendant something for his plea,” the judge said. “Somebody’s got to bite the bullet.”
As of Tuesday, Mangen had not received a dime in restitution from Dunson.
“The system is so bogus, it’s ridiculous,” Mangen said. “You’re better off being the criminal than the victim.”
The Likelihood of Charges Being Filed.
Homicide suspects arrested by Los Angeles police received fairly consistent treatment over the years 1980-1989, but those suspected of other serious crimes were increasingly likely to be released without being charged.
Rape: An equal number of suspects were charged with felonies as were released at beginning of period, but by 1989, more than twice as many were released as were charged with felonies. Misdemeanor filings dwindled, too.
Robbery: Releases increased in early 1980’s as misdemeanor filings fell. After 1986, felony filings also fell and releases grew proportionately.
Vehicle theft: A slight trent toward increased felony filings during the period is overshadowed by dramatic drop in misdemeanor filings and increase in releases.
Homicide: About twice as many suspects were charged with felonies each year as were released. AFter 1982, fewer were charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.
Assault: Misdemeanor filings plummeted beginning in 1984. Police officials say the decline may be partially explained by a 1986 law requiring that officers make arrests in domestic violence situations even when it is unlikely that any criminal charges will be filed.
Burglary: Suspects could expect fairly consistent treatment until 1987 when releases soared and misdemeanors plummeted while felony filings dropped slightly.
Larceny: Misdemeanor filings were high throughout period, but decreased from 1986 with corresponding increase in releases.
Source: Los Angeles Police Dept.
The Times Poll: Filing Charges
A majority of Los Angeles’ police officers are finding it increasingly difficult to get prosecutors to file charges in criminal cases, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll.
Slightly more than half said they believe that prosecutors usually have good reason to reject cases; more than one-in-three officers said prosecutors seldom express valid reasons when declining to file charges.
Of police officers questioned, 54% said that it has become more difficult to have prosecutors file charges, while 8% said it has become less difficult and 27% said there has been no change.
At the same time, only 6% of prosecutors surveyed said that increasing workloads are forcing them to reject more criminal cases. But twice as many said that they are more inclined today to plea bargain with accused criminals so the cases can be disposed of faster than if the cases were taken to trial.
One in five prosecutors--and the same proportion of public defenders--acknowledged that with increasing caseloads they are taking less time preparing cases.
Has it become more difficult or easier to have the District Attorney and City Attorney accept cases for filing in court? (Asked of police officers)
Increasingly Difficult: 54%
No Change: 27%
Less Difficult: 8%
Not Sure: 9%
When prosecutors reject your cases, how often do they have a good reason for doing so? (Asked of police officers)
Not Sure: 9%
Do you approach your job differently today than five years ago? If so, how?
Public Defenders Prosecutors Yes. I Approach the Job Differently 46% 54% *I Take Less Time Preparing Cases 19 20 *Try to Plea Bargain More Often 9 12 *Reject More Cases 0 6
Source: Los Angeles Times Poll