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Appeals court sides with ACLU against San Diego County D.A.

An appeals court Thursday sided with the ACLU against the San Diego County district attorney in a case involving juveniles and a ballot measure adopted by voters to permit adults to have some felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors.

The specific juvenile in the case was convicted in 2013 of felony commercial burglary.

The ACLU claimed that the district attorney was unfairly blocking the conviction from being reduced to misdemeanor shoplifting under the 2014 ballot measure.

Such a reduction would allow the felony conviction to be removed from the official record and also force the state to destroy the defendant’s DNA sample.

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Proposition 47, adopted by voters in November 2014, allows some nonviolent felonies, including drug possession and theft, to be reduced to misdemeanors. The proposition was opposed by San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis.

The 4th District Court of Appeal noted that the measure uses language usually associated only with adults. Still, the court agreed with the ACLU and other public-interest lawyers in their case against Dumanis and her office.

“Offense reclassification provisions are equally applicable to juvenile offenders,” the appeals court ruled.

The district attorney and ACLU agreed during the court hearing that the decision in the case would “apply to the other juvenile modification petitions” filed in the local court, according to the 25-page ruling by a three-judge panel.

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The effect of the ruling statewide may depend on whether it is appealed and upheld, or, even if it is not appealed, whether district attorneys in other counties are influenced by its strong language when faced with similar requests from juvenile offenders.

“If other district attorneys throughout California are tempted to adopt Bonnie Dumanis’ very harsh views of Proposition 47, they should take a look at this ruling,” said ACLU attorney Kellen Russoniello.

In court documents, the juvenile is identified only as Alejandro. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to three years in juvenile custody.

Just a day after the passage of Proposition 47, a Superior Court judge ruled that Alejandro’s sentence should be reduced to eight months, which fits misdemeanor shoplifting. Alejandro, who had already served a year, was released.

The fight in the appeals court was over the DNA sample and the official criminal record.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, director of the statewide ACLU’s Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Project, said that if Dumanis had won, “it would have given prosecutors across the state the authority to do what many would consider unthinkable -- criminalize children more harshly than adults.”

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Dumanis’ office issued a statement, saying it has not decided whether to appeal:

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“We support a juvenile justice system that has a goal of rehabilitation focused on providing the care, treatment and guidance in the best interest of minors. The D.A.'s office is committed to keeping as many kids out of the criminal justice system as possible.”

The district attorney’s office will continue “working with law enforcement, the probation department and the courts to expand opportunities for diversion with proper rehabilitation services,” the statement said.

For more San Diego news, follow @LATsandiego.

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