Circuit Teams Ride to the Rescue of Overtaxed Rural Prosecutors

Times Staff Writer

They call them circuit riders. The attorneys from the California District Attorneys Assn. blaze into rural counties that lack the resources and expertise to prosecute environmental and workplace safety cases and do it themselves.

The association, which operates under state contract, has been acclaimed nationally for its more than 700 environmental prosecutions, targeting everyone from bear poachers to timber corporations.

Two years ago, it launched a second team to crack down on workplace deaths and injuries.

Its prosecutors-on-loan are lauded as lifesavers by overwhelmed and understaffed district attorneys from the sparsely populated northern woods to the San Joaquin Valley farm belt and the flank of the Sierra Nevada.

Many district attorneys in those regions have barely enough staff to cover standard criminal cases. They count on the circuit riders to press cases against businesses that pollute or maintain dangerous workplaces.

"They're the greatest thing since sliced bread," said Terry Farmer, who was Humboldt County's district attorney for two decades.

On Farmer's watch, the traveling prosecutorial team went to Humboldt County to help wrest a settlement in excess of $1 million from the Louisiana Pacific lumber company for fouling Janes Creek with sawdust from a particle-board plant. Without the outside expertise in environmental law, Farmer said, his office would have pursued "the kind of offense that historically would have imposed a $5,000 fine, with most of it suspended."

But the traveling prosecutors have earned great displeasure of late with an initial string of cases focusing on workplace deaths.

Among the targets of the cases have been farmers, miners and dairy operators -- blue-collar men making their livings in deeply rooted local industries that have not been accustomed to close scrutiny from local authorities.

Two cases against the employers have been tossed out -- one at a Yolo County preliminary hearing last year, another by a local judge who dismissed grand jury indictments earlier this month against two Sierra County gold miners.

The miners were charged in the death of a worker whose head was crushed by a protruding ore chute. Supporters who have rallied around the miners -- including the county assessor and the editor of the local newspaper -- have derided the visiting prosecutors as big-city interlopers who never had a callus on their hands.

"Out of the blue come the carpetbaggers," said Michael Miller, the chief executive of the century-old Sixteen to One mine, whose attorney persuaded the judge to toss out the manslaughter case against him. "They're accountable to no one."

At issue in the case against Miller and mine manager Jonathan Farrell was whether prosecutors should have presented potentially exculpatory evidence to the grand jury -- evidence they chose not to share.

One day after Miller's victory, meanwhile, a Merced County Grand Jury indicted a dairyman and his foreman from the town of Gustine on charges of involuntary manslaughter and labor code violations in connection with the deaths of two workers who fainted and drowned in liquefied manure while repairing a pump. The circuit prosecutors are spearheading the case.

While less vocal than their Sierra County counterparts, dairy industry leaders expressed shock at the felony charges for the drownings. They said the out-of-town prosecutors are targeting hard-working men already broken-hearted over what they believe was a tragic accident.

"Are these people a threat to society? Probably not," said Roy Souza, past president of the Western United Dairymen, which represents the bulk of the state's 2,000 dairymen. "How far are we going to push this thing?"

Gale Filter, director of the District Attorneys Assn.'s Circuit Prosecutor Project, attributed the discomfort to growing pains as rural counties get used to being held accountable for rare but egregious workplace deaths.

"The bottom line is: Honest businesspeople have no concern" about either prosecution effort, Filter said. "We're not a threat to people who follow environmental and worker safety laws. We're a threat to the people who don't."

The contract prosecutors are stepping in at a time when many small counties are bracing for devastating budget cuts. Some, like Madera County, fear they could lose as many as half their prosecutors.

The environmental project has a staff large enough to permanently assign some of its lawyers to rural locales. But only two prosecutors are assigned to the worker safety team, so they roam the state more widely.

The costs of the work are paid by the state, another bonus to cash-challenged counties.

The environmental team was born five years ago after a group of district attorneys at a conference shared their relief that a significant environmental disaster had occurred in a neighboring county and not theirs. They simply didn't have the skill, time or money to go after the responsible parties.

So the California District Attorneys Assn. stepped in, under contract with the state. Over time, the environmental prosecutors won the trust of local communities. The project has also become a model for other states hoping to replicate the effort.

To be sure, some cases still generate plenty of controversy. When then-circuit prosecutor Lawrence Allen, now Sierra County's district attorney, pursued a case against a gold dredger in Siskiyou County last year, he thought he might need an armed guard. The courtroom was packed with supporters of the defendant, a retired U.S. Air Force major. Not even murder trials in the county spurred such interest or antipathy toward prosecutors, Allen recalled.

But the environmental prosecutors have many arrows in their quiver, including the ability to seek either civil or criminal penalties.

Allen chose to pursue the dredging case in civil court so it would be heard by a judge -- and not a jury. "In areas where these cases won't play too well to a jury, you can go to a judge and avoid that," he said.

But the mandate of the worker safety team is narrower, with an emphasis on criminal prosecution under the penal code or labor code, when willful negligence toward worker safety can be proved.

Local judges aren't always sympathetic.

"You have to work through some of the judges who have a problem with these cases coming into their courts because they're not 'real' crimes," said Butte County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramsey. "They say, 'Isn't this something that should be over on the civil side?' We're saying, 'No, it's a crime. It's no more an accident than if someone was going 100 miles an hour down the road. You were grossly negligent.' "

The worker safety cases have proved particularly controversial and difficult to prosecute, mostly because the stakes are so high, with small-business owners and their managers facing felony criminal records and jail time, even if they weren't present when the deaths occurred.

In Merced County, dairyman Pat Faria has sold his dairy operation. He faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines stemming from the two manure-pit deaths. Stamping him a criminal, one of his attorneys said, goes too far.

"Why are you criminalizing our employers in the absence of real criminal intent?" asked Larry Kazanjian, one of the dairyman's attorneys. To put someone who has run a business for decades without problems "in the same cell as the burglar, the armed robber, the guy who's charged with negligent homicide for drunk driving ... I don't think that's right."

Countered Filter, chief of the circuit riders: "Even though we've had some rough sledding, we do provide a presence, just as we have on the environmental side. If the purpose is to serve as a deterrent, have we done that? I think there's no question that we have."

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