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Flip Side of ‘3 Strikes’ Lets Many Suspects Elude Jail : Crime: Prison crowding means most charged with misdemeanors go free. Drunk driving case is an example.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tale of Mark Ellis Nash’s arrests sounds almost apocryphal, but authorities are worried it may end in tragedy.

Three times since December, the 40-year-old from Tennessee has been arrested in San Pedro for alleged drunk driving. All three times he was picked up by the same motorcycle cop, in the same area of the hilly seaside community. All three times, authorities say, Nash had a staggering blood-alcohol level of three to four times the legal limit.

And all three times, Nash was released.

The first time, he was released simply because of the longtime practice of releasing first-time misdemeanor suspects.

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After the first arrest, he was given a scheduled court date--a date that Nash skipped.

This month, Nash was arrested twice on the same offense. But these times, Nash was released for a different reason: the Sheriff’s Department, its county jails more crowded than ever because of the “three strikes” sentencing law, no longer holds most misdemeanor suspects.

Drug addicts. Car burglars. Petty thieves. Prostitutes. Even folks arrested for minor assaults such as bar fights are released each week by the hundreds, maybe the thousands, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

This, authorities say, is the flip side of the “three strikes” law, which demands prison terms of 25 years to life for a third felony after two previous serious felony convictions. Five months ago, Jerry Dewayne Williams, 27, a five-time felon, received that sentence for stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza in Hermosa Beach. Now, just a short drive down the coast, authorities in San Pedro are wondering how long the jail overcrowding might allow Nash to remain on the streets.

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“This guy is a public safety hazard if I ever saw one,” said Matt St. George, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney. “Our real concern here is that this man will be free on the streets to drive until he kills somebody.”

Paul E. Myron shares that concern. “There are a bunch of misdemeanor suspects who deserve to be in jail,” said Myron, chief of the sheriff’s south custody division.

But as one of the two people responsible for administering the county’s seven jails, bursting with a court-limited population of 18,000 inmates, Myron says he does not know of any alternative to freeing misdemeanor suspects such as Nash to make room for felons.

“I certainly don’t have any magic answers,” he said. “Take a look at the 18,000 people I have in custody today . . . which ones should I release to put this guy in jail? Because he belongs in jail. But on the other hand, I believe these 18,000 others also belong in jail.”

Before the “three strikes” law took effect in March, 1994, he said, the average felon spent 60 days in jail from the time of arrest to the time of acquittal or sentencing, mainly because of the many plea bargains.

“All of a sudden . . . nobody plea bargains,” Myron said. Defendants accused of their third felony “all want to go to jury trial because they can’t afford to plead guilty if there is the slightest chance they will be acquitted.”

Today, the average jail time for a “three strikes” suspect is 200 days, Myron said.

Of about 500 categories of misdemeanors, only 10--including stalking, some types of sexual assault, and battery against a public official--generally are sufficient to keep a person in custody.

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Although he understands that pressure, deputy city attorney St. George worries--like others in his office--about what the wholesale release of misdemeanor suspects means for the county’s criminal justice system and the public’s safety.

“It brings the entire system into disrepute because there is no punishment, there is no consequence to be paid [for crime],” said St. George, who heads the office’s San Pedro division. “You are arrested and released. And if you don’t come back to court, you are free.”

That is exactly what has happened with Nash, who has listed different addresses and phone numbers with each arrest and could not be reached for comment. Bruce MacGregor, the only attorney to have represented Nash in court appearances, said he is no longer the man’s lawyer and declined further comment.

In the early evening in December, two days before Christmas, LAPD Officer Bill Euge, part of a patrol team for drunk driving, saw a blue pickup truck exit a private driveway on Pacific Avenue. The pickup sped across two lanes of rush-hour traffic, forcing three cars to take evasive action to avoid an accident, Euge said in his report.

When Euge stopped the truck, Nash got out of the vehicle and was given the standard field sobriety test, according to Euge’s report. When Nash could not touch his nose in six tries, balance himself on one leg or walk a line, he was arrested and taken to the Harbor Division station.

Giving an address on 15th Street, Nash took Breathalyzer tests that showed his blood-alcohol level was at least 0.27%. The legal intoxication level in California is 0.08%.

After a night in jail, Nash was released on his own recognizance and ordered to return to court Jan. 18 for his arraignment.

He never made it.

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Euge next caught up with Nash on Aug. 6, also in the early evening. The officer was again on Pacific Avenue when, his report says, he saw a blue Ford pickup weaving in the No. 1 lane and crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic. The officer stopped the truck at 17th Street, ordered Nash out of the car and immediately detected signs of intoxication, his report states.

Nash’s breath was sharp with alcohol, his blue eyes were bloodshot and he staggered when he got out of the car, Euge’s report says. Again, Nash failed the field sobriety test and was arrested with a reported blood-alcohol reading of 0.26%.

He was jailed again until he appeared in court Aug. 8 for arraignment. Nash not only faced his recent arrest and $25,000 bail but an additional $25,000 warrant for failing to appear on the first case.

Normally that would have been enough to hold Nash in custody. But as soon as the deputy city attorney asked for that, the Sheriff Department’s representative reminded the court about the department’s policy on releasing misdemeanor suspects.

With that, according to deputy city attorney St. George, Nash was released pending a future court appearance and ordered not to drink and drive.

Five days after that arraignment, Nash was again in custody.

Another early evening on Pacific Avenue. This time, Euge said he noticed that a pickup truck, stopped at 11th Street, was missing a front license plate.

As he made a U-turn to stop the truck, Euge wrote in his report, the driver of the truck threw it into reverse. Leaving a 15-foot skidmark, the driver then sped the truck backward another 60 feet and into a driveway.

When he approached the truck, Euge said in his report, he saw the driver stagger from his vehicle, holding onto it for balance. “I then noted that this man was the same person I arrested for DUI on Aug. 6, 1995,” the officer said in his report.

So apparently did Nash, who according to the report, began yelling at the officer. “Just stay the f--- away from me! Let me alone! Why are you doing to this me? Just stay the f--- away!”

Arrested again, his blood-alcohol allegedly at 0.23%, Nash is now supposed to return to court Sept. 7. “If he comes in, we will have him on all three [cases], but I will be amazed if he does,” said St. George.

And why should he return?

“If he doesn’t return, the only way we will find him is if he gets picked up again,” said St. George. “That’s what we are up against.”

If that happens, the one to do it might again be Euge, a 25-year LAPD veteran who is clearly frustrated by the case.

“He is just an accident waiting to happen,” Euge said of Nash on Tuesday as he began his shift.


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