California County Stops Prosecuting Misdemeanors – Except DUI
By: Mike Stetzer
Facing a steep deficit and impending layoffs , Contra Costa County, California is preparing to stop prosecuting assaults, thefts, and even misdemeanor drug charges – but drunk driving offenses aren't on the chopping block.
According to ABC News, District Attorney Robert Kochly announced last week that beginning May 4, his office will only prosecute cases that meet certain requirements, and that many petty crimes will go unchallenged.
Burglaries, embezzlement and vandalism and won't make Kochly's cut, and neither will felony drug charges involving smaller amounts.
Anyone caught with less than a gram of methamphetamine or cocaine, less than 0.5 grams of heroin and fewer than five pills of ecstasy, OxyContin or Vicodin is essentially in the clear.
Most traffic violations will go uncontested, with DUI offenses being a major exception. California DUI laws carry mandatory jail sentences for even first-time convictions.
Costra County will continue to prosecute DUI and other "core" misdemeanors, including domestic violence, vehicular manslaughter and crimes involving firearms.
The District Attorney's office is facing a $1.9 billion shortfall, and Kochly's office will lose 20 percent of its staff – six prosecutors will be laid off by June, and an additional 11 by the end of the year.
Police Continue DUI Arrests
Police departments in Contra Costa say they will continue enforcing the law, and those arrested could face lockup, but for many violations, the process will stop there.
"Law enforcement will continue to enforce law violations whether they're felony or misdemeanors. That won't change. Those that think perhaps they're going to be off the hook, so to speak, on a violation are just wrong," said David Livingston, chief of police in Concord, Calif.
Kochly insists that law enforcement officials not bother sending in non-complying cases. "If they are submitted, they will be screened out by category by support staff and returned to your department without review by a deputy district attorney," he wrote in a memo to the Contra Costa County Police Chiefs Association.
With prosecutors focusing on fewer cases and under public scrutiny, those facing criminal DUI charges will want a DUI attorney on their side to help navigate the burdened legal system.
An Unpopular Decision
Citizens of the Northern California county, which has a population of around 1 million, are upset with the DA's decision, with many insisting that by naming the specific crimes he will not pursue, Kochly is inviting criminals to commit those very crimes.
"I know they think that they're trying to save money, but there are other places that they can make cuts because we need to be safe in our town," resident Kara Braxton told ABC news. "We need to be safe in our city."
The county Board of Supervisors originally proposed cutting the office's budget by $4.1 million. But after Kochly argued that such a reduction would hurt his ability to prosecute petty thefts, the board used sales-tax revenue to close the gap.
"It sends a terrible message to criminals. I don't have any doubt that we are going to see an influx of criminals in this county coming from across the border," warned Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove. "We're a tinderbox and the match has been lit, and we're about to go up."
Grove called the decision a "horrible signal" to taxpayers about how the government allocates funds.