Several of D.A. George Gascón’s reforms blocked by L.A. County judge
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón was barred from implementing a significant part of his sprawling criminal justice reform platform Monday, after a judge ruled his plan to end the use of sentencing enhancements in thousands of criminal cases violates California law.
The order stemmed from a lawsuit filed late last year by the union that represents hundreds of L.A. County prosecutors, alleging some of Gascón’s plans exceeded his legal authority and put line prosecutors in an ethical bind. Sentencing enhancements can add several years to a defendant’s time in prison if certain criteria are met, such as using a gun causing severe injury during the commission of a crime, or being a documented gang member.
The lawsuit took particular issue with Gascón’s policy of barring the use of sentencing enhancements for prior felony convictions, arguing that under California’s “three strikes” law, prosecutors do not have discretion “to refuse to seek the enhancement.”
In his ruling, Judge James Chalfant noted that the “three strikes” law requires prosecutors to “plead and prove” all prior serious or violent felony offenses. He found Gascón’s directive ordering prosecutors not to file such enhancements unlawful, and cited several appellate cases that upheld the argument that strike offenses must be charged under state law.
“A district attorney’s discretion is not unlimited. He or she must work within the framework of the criminal system,” Chalfant wrote. “The legislature also is entitled to enact laws intruding on the executive or judicial branches of government so long as they do not defeat or materially impair that branch’s core function.”
In a 46-page ruling, Chalfant also barred Gascón from ordering prosecutors to dismiss any sentencing enhancements in active cases, unless they can argue that there is insufficient evidence to prove the enhancement or that the dismissal would be in the interest of justice.
Since Gascón took office, many prosecutors have appeared in court and read a statement — which some derisively refer to as “the script” — acknowledging they were seeking to dismiss enhancements under Gascón’s order because they believed the underlying penalties for the crime in question were “sufficient to protect public safety and serve justice.”
Judges had already been blocking such motions to dismiss on those grounds, but Chalfant’s ruling also stopped Gascón from ordering prosecutors to read the statement, finding the remarks themselves are “inaccurate and incomplete” and would require prosecutors to commit an ethical violation by making an inaccurate representation to the court.
The ruling affects a significant number of cases in L.A. County, where there are 10,794 defendants currently facing charges with sentencing enhancements, according to statistics provided to The Times in response to a public records request.
Gascón can still bar prosecutors from filing most sentencing enhancements in new cases, though enhancements for prior strike offenses must still be charged, according to the order.
“Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law. This lawsuit has never been about whether sentencing enhancements are good or bad policy, but about whether a district attorney can force prosecutors to violate clear California law in order to carry out his desired policy changes,” Nathan Hochman, a partner at the law firm representing the union, said in an email.
Gascón said he will appeal Chalfant’s ruling, which he acknowledged as an expected hurdle in his broader mission to reimagine criminal justice in Southern California.
“More than 2 million people in Los Angeles County voted for a system of justice based on science and data, not fear and emotion. Nevertheless, I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism,” he said in a statement. “My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety.”
In a reply filed in January to the union’s suit, lawyers for L.A. County argued that prosecutors have broad discretion over whether to file strike enhancements and contended that if a judge granted the union’s petition, it would be an unprecedented overreach from the bench.
“The Union asks for something no California court has ever ordered, as no California court has ever deemed itself to have the power to require ... a district attorney to plead any particular criminal charge or sentencing enhancement,” the reply read. “To the contrary, courts have long held that such charging power is almost entirely unreviewable and is uniquely within the district attorney’s discretion.”
The day he took office, Gascón announced an array of sweeping changes that included putting an end to the use of enhancements, severely restricted when prosecutors can seek to hold defendants in lieu of bail, ended the use of the death penalty in L.A. County and stopped the practice of trying juveniles as adults.
The seismic policy shifts have drawn Gascón praise from other progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reformers nationwide, but left him at odds with his own staff and many of the local law enforcement officials he must work with to try cases.
The union lawsuit was being watched closely by law enforcement officials around the state and highlighted a broader divide between traditionalist and reform-minded prosecutors that has seemingly grown wider in recent weeks. San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin and Contra Costa County Dist. Atty. Diane Becton filed briefs in support of Gascón, worrying that a ruling like the one issued Monday would have a “chilling effect” on the authority of elected prosecutors to enact reforms.
The conservative-leaning California District Attorneys Assn., which is supposed to function as an advocacy arm for elected prosecutors in California, supported the union lawsuit and ostensibly turned against one of its own members in Gascón.
Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the progressive Prosecutors Alliance of California, said Chalfant’s reading of the three strikes law would only serve to anchor Californians today to laws passed by an electorate that looked a lot different 25 years ago.
“If you read the three strikes language ... it talks about how the goal of this is to punish harshly. We know that voters have evolved in their thinking about these issues,” she said. “They do not hold that universal approach any longer, and I don’t think the state of California is done thinking about three strikes.”
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