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LA county judge blocks some of DA’s reforms

DA George Gascón’s refusal to charge three-strikes cases violates California law and the rights of prosecutors in his office, a judge ruled Monday


By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón’s refusal to charge three-strikes cases violates California law and the rights of prosecutors in his office, a judge ruled Monday in a case with implications for policies in San Francisco.

Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney from 2011 to 2019, was elected as Los Angeles County’s chief prosecutor in November after promising rollbacks in sentencing. Besides curtailing three strikes, he has stopped seeking the death penalty and will no longer prosecute juveniles as adults for serious crimes.

Chesa Boudin, elected to succeed Gascón in San Francisco, says he will not seek three-strikes sentences except in “extraordinary circumstances.” In response to Monday’s ruling, Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for Boudin, said his policy was “not absolute” and that Boudin decides whether to charge prior strikes “on a case-by-case basis.”

The three-strikes law, passed by legislators and approved by the voters in 1994 and modified by a later ballot measure, imposes sentences of 25 years to life in prison for defendants convicted of a third serious or violent felony. Convictions for a second such felony carry twice the usual sentence.

In a lawsuit by the Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorneys Association, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said Monday the law gives prosecutors some discretion in filing charges but does not allow them to disavow three-strikes penalties as a blanket policy.

Prosecutors must file three-strikes charges “in every case in which the defendant has a prior serious or violent conviction,” Chalfant said. “That is what the voters and the Legislature both wanted.”

Once the charges are filed, he said, a prosecutor may seek a shorter sentence as part of a plea agreement, or ask the judge for a reduction “in the interest of justice,” Chalfant said. But he said the district attorney’s order forbidding all three-strikes sentences puts prosecutors at risk of being found in contempt of court for illegal and unethical conduct.

On a related issue, however, Chalfant allowed Gascón to prohibit prosecutors from seeking longer sentences for defendants whose crimes involved guns or gang membership. Boudin has a similar policy on gang-related sentences.

Prosecutors in Gascón’s office did not challenge his refusal to seek death sentences. Chalfant said Gascón also had legal authority to bar prosecutors from filing so-called special-circumstances murder charges, which require either death or life without parole for aggravated murder charges such as multiple murders, killings of police officers, and murder during a rape or robbery.

Under his policy, defendants convicted of those murder charges would remain eligible for parole. But Chalfant said Gascón could not withdraw life-without-parole charges that had already been filed.

“This ruling protects the communities which are disproportionately affected by higher crime rates and those who are victimized,” the Los Angeles prosecutors’ association said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from Gascón’s office, which could appeal the ruling.

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