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S.F. sheriff pleads guilty to misdemeanor count in domestic violence case

Reporting from San Francisco -- Just days before going to trial on domestic violence charges, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi pleaded guilty Monday to one misdemeanor count of falsely imprisoning his wife during an argument on New Year’s Eve.

The family drama, complete with video of Mirkarimi’s bruised and tearful wife, Eliana Lopez, and allegations of other incidents from an ex-girlfriend, has transfixed the city and raised questions about Mirkarimi’s political future and fitness for duty, after little more than two months in office.

A misdemeanor conviction would not preclude Mirkarimi from keeping his job, but the city charter allows Mayor Edwin M. Lee to suspend the sheriff and launch an Ethics Commission hearing on “official misconduct.”

Lee said Monday afternoon that he is conferring with the city attorney’s office about how to proceed.

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“I understand the troubling nature that this guilty plea raises, given the sheriff’s role in overseeing and incarcerating criminals in our county jails,” Lee said in a written statement. “I intend to make a decision based on all of the facts as quickly as possible.”

The decision is as much political as legal, and the stakes are high for both Lee, an affable former bureaucrat who wants to focus his attention on job creation, and Mirkarimi, who was sworn in as sheriff just days after police began investigating the allegations of domestic violence against him.

“I don’t see how he could ever win an election again, particularly for a law enforcement position,” said political strategist Dan Newman. “The sheriff imprisons people. It’s difficult to imagine an elected sheriff who admitted to false imprisonment carrying on in a position in which you imprison people.”

But on Monday, Mirkarimi vowed to do just that.

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“I intend to return to the business of running one of the finest sheriff’s departments in the nation,” he told reporters outside the courtroom where had entered his guilty plea. The sheriff pledged to work on “mending my family and raising my son, Theo, in a safe and happy home.”

Mirkarimi acknowledged that the last two months have caused his family, the department and the city “great turmoil, pain and disappointment.” Pleading guilty to one misdemeanor and having the three original charges dropped, he said, “allows us to move forward.”

Mirkarimi was arrested Jan. 13 and charged with misdemeanor domestic violence battery, dissuading a witness and child endangerment, stemming from an incident on New Year’s Eve during which he allegedly grabbed Lopez during an argument and bruised her arm.

The next day, Lopez confided in her neighbor, Ivory Madison, bursting into tears and displaying a large bruise on her biceps, according to court documents. Madison shot a 55-second video of a tearful Lopez. On Jan. 4, Madison called police to report the incident.

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“This happened yesterday,” Lopez said on the video, while displaying the bruise, according to Mirkarimi’s arrest warrant. “Two times in 2011 and this is the second time this is happening.... I’m going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me because [he said] that he is very powerful and he can do it.”

Lopez has consistently refused to cooperate with police and the district attorney’s office. She has said that the fight was taken “completely out of context.... I don’t have any complaint against my husband.”

Paula Canny, Lopez’s attorney, argued in court that Lopez reached out to Madison for legal advice and that therefore the video and Madison’s testimony are protected by attorney-client privilege and cannot be submitted as evidence. Madison graduated from law school but is not licensed.

The judge didn’t buy Canny’s argument, and neither did a three-member appellate panel. On Friday, Mirkarimi filed his own motion to have the tape removed from evidence. Earlier, he had asked for a change of venue and tried — unsuccessfully — to have the testimony of former girlfriend Christina Flores kept out of court.

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The case was dogged by a circus atmosphere that Canny described after Mirkarimi’s plea as akin to “putting out fires with gasoline. If it wasn’t a videotape, it was Christina Flores’ underwear,” the focus of allegedly violent arguments between Flores and Mirkarimi.

Flores did not file charges and came forward only after news reports of the current case.

Canny on Monday described Lopez as “relieved and hopeful” that her life can go back to normal and said Lopez believes the plea agreement is in “everybody’s best interests.” Canny would not discuss how Lopez got the bruise on her arm and said she does not know of the “factual basis” for the false imprisonment charge.

She described the plea as common for cases involving law enforcement officials, because it does not contain a mandatory prohibition from possessing firearms. Mirkarimi has given up his guns temporarily as a condition of a restraining order that also keeps him away from Lopez and their home and restricts his access to 2-year-old Theo. That stay-away order remains in place.

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Mirkarimi, scheduled to be sentenced March 19, agreed to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, 52 weeks of domestic violence classes, a $400 domestic violence fine and parenting or family counseling. He also was required to apologize to Madison and her family for the “public scrutiny they endured,” Dist. Atty. George Gascon said in a written statement.

“Domestic violence is an underreported crime that happens behind closed doors,” Gascon said. “Ivory Madison and other witnesses should be commended for their courage.”

maria.laganga@latimes.com


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