The following recommendations
for improving District Attorney response to violence against women
and children address specific problems we have encountered in
Sonoma County. However, these problems are commonplace in District
Attorney offices everywhere. We hope that by making our set of
recommendations available to you, you'll be able to adapt them
to use in your own community. Or, that they will spark your own
ideas of the specific changes that can be made. As much as possible
we have framed the recommendations in a way that makes it easier
to measure and monitor results.
There is one underlying
problem that women everywhere have with their district attorney
that our recommendations don't address. The problem is this: all
district attorneys have absolute discretion to reject cases for
prosecution whenever they want, without having to explain why,
and no matter how much evidence there is to support the case.
Put another way, district attorneys have no legal obligation to
file charges on any case, and victims have no legal means to hold
the district attorney accountable for refusing to file. This absolute
discretion of district attorneys to dump cases arbitrarily generally
harms women and children most of all. The fact that women come
to the criminal justice system primarily as victims, and the fact
that violence against women cases are generally a district attorneys
least favorite cases, leads to wholesale dumping of viable violence
against women cases at most district attorney's offices.
Until there are legislated
checks on DA powers to dump cases at will, it is essential that
women and their advocates stay constantly vigilant and activist
on DA handling of all rape, domestic violence, and child abuse
In Sonoma County:
For the last
eight years behind rhetoric of concern about violence against
women, the reality of District Attorney Mike Mullins' reign has
been marked by arbitrary dumping of rape and domestic violence
cases, unchecked violations of women's rights, a facade of law
enforcement programs designed more to fool the public than to
serve victims, and sharp retaliation against any who dared to
On March 5th election
day, Sonoma County ousted incumbent Mike Mullins from office.
By a margin of 58 to 43 percent voters gave a stunning rejection
to Mullins' abuses of power and an unambiguous mandate for sweeping
law enforcement change. But ousting the county's chief law enforcement
officer is just the first step.
The following are the
changes we feel are most urgently needed in the DA's office to
assure justice and safety for the women and children of Sonoma
County. We urge you to get involved now!
Change! Change! Change!
Given this year's election
timing, it will be nine months before DA elect Stephen Passalaqua
will take office on January 2003. The extended lame duck period
is awkward, but it does present a unique opportunity for the community
to work with Passalaqua before he's barraged by the demands of
We're impressed with
the way Passalaqua ran his campaign. We believe he'll be more
open to public input than any DA of recent history, and that he'll
be especially open to the needs of the Latino community. Among
a number of promises affecting the Latino community, Passalaqua,
who himself is bilingual, vowed that his first act of office will
be to put a fully bilingual staff person at the front desk.
So shake off the despair
that we could never change the way law enforcement works in this
county. Join with others, and commit to a piece of the work.
the number of deputy DA's assigned to violence against women and
Law enforcement effort
given to violence against women in any county is directly proportional
to the number of deputy DA's (sometimes called assistant DA's)
assigned to these cases. This is so because all police cases generated
in the county funnel up into the district attorney's office and
because each deputy DA can only handle a given number of cases.
If too few deputy DA's are assigned to a given crime category,
the overflow of cases will inevitably be vulnerable to rejection
- no matter how strong the evidence.
At present there are
a total of 47 deputy DA's (DDA's) in Sonoma County. Only 3 DDA's
are currently assigned to the rape/domestic violence felony prosecution
team. (That's one less than before Teresa Macias was murdered
by her husband in 1996.) In addition, there is currently only
one DDA assigned to misdemeanor domestic violence court.
Given that at least
a quarter of police calls are domestic violence related, assigning
only 4 out of 47 DDA's to cover both domestic violence and rape
creates an immense pressure to reject a high volume of these cases
no matter how strong the evidence that the crimes have occurred.
This intentional bottleneck at the top not only outright blocks
women's equal access to justice, it also discourages even the
most diligent police from putting time and effort into these cases.
After all, how much effort do you give to a restraining order
violation if you know ahead of time the DA is going to reject
- Doubling the number
of DDA's assigned to violence against women -and for the same
reasons doubling the number of DDA's assigned to child abuse-
will automatically double law enforcement effort and interest
in these cases county-wide.
- Grant writing to
support these positions must be ongoing and treated seriously.
Grant writing effort must be publicly reported.
- Even if the grants
are not immediately available, DDA's must be transferred from
other crimes. Equal justice can no longer be denied to crimes
of violence against women and children in Sonoma County.
Access and Communication
the DA's office has been consistently frustrating for both professionals
and victims, and virtually impossible for persons who don't speak
- There should be
at least three persons assigned to the front desk and incoming
phones (there are currently only two.) At least one must be
fully Spanish bilingual.
- Front desk persons
should be given ongoing training in the criminal justice process
and in the criminal justice computer system.
- All front desk
persons, in fact all staff at the DA's office, should be connected
to, and trained in the use of, the Language Line in the same
way as 911 operators. (The Language Line is a national telephone
bank of professional interpreters in over 100 languages available
24 hours a day.)
- Prosecutors must
communicate with crime victims in a timely, respectful, honest,
and supportive manner. The mean-spiritedness of the Mullins'
years has taken a terrible toll on everyone in the office, but
it is victims who have been hurt most of all. At the same time
that Passalaqua must find a way to lift the moral inside the
office, he must also establish a fair system of discipline that
responds swiftly to victim complaints. This system for responding
to victims' complaints should be codified and put together before
and Hire Minority Race Deputy DA's
Sonoma County has not
had even one deputy DA in the last ten years who is a racial minority.
An all-white DA's office with 47 white deputy DA's is inexcusable.
It is an injustice by itself, and it inevitably leads to greater
injustices. Passalaqua must prioritize recruiting and hiring of
minority race deputies. A formal mechanism should be created for
citizen participation in this process.
Review Forms Must be Intelligible,
Substantive, Truthful, and Open to Public Inspection
When the DA's office
rejects a case, the deputy DA assigned to the case fills out a
one page "Complaint Review Form" supposedly giving the legal rational
for the rejection. This form is then sent back to the police along
with the corresponding rejected police crime report.
The way these forms
are currently filled out is a mockery. Most prosecutors just arbitrarily
check off a box that says, "insufficient evidence", "no corroboration",
or "in the interests of justice". Rarely does the box checked
or the added phrase or two of explanation bear any relationship
to the true merits or faults of the case.
Given the absolute
powers of the DA to reject cases at will,
- The DA must require
his deputies to provide intelligible, thorough, and honest explanations
when filling out complaint review forms. These explanations
should provide relevant and instructive information for police
on the legal points necessary for successful prosecutions and
should also serve to properly inform victims of why their case
cannot be filed.
- Complaint review
forms must be open to public inspection. Personal or confidential
information can be redacted as is done with any other public
Restructure Domestic Violence Court
Created in the wake
of public outrage over the murder of Teresa Macias, domestic violence
court has been one of the biggest PR scams of the Mullins' era.
From the beginning, only misdemeanor domestic violence cases have
been heard in dv court. But the most detrimental slight of hand
comes out of the fact that the moment a defendant pleads "not
guilty" in dv court that defendant's case is immediately transferred
out of dv court into another court. Once in another court, the
case is then in the hands of a junior deputy DA and of a new judge
whose attitude, not surprisingly, is that these cases should be
handled in dv court. As often as not, the domestic violence case
the DA publicly boasts of taking so seriously, is then simply
dismissed. Defense attorneys early on saw the scam and, of course,
tell their clients to plead "not guilty' as their best pass for
walking out the door.
In other words, the
highly tauted dv court doesn't really prosecute domestic violence
cases. In reality, it serves as little more as a probationary
baby-sitter for those misdemeanor defendants who are willing to
plead guilty. It has been commonplace for the door to dv court
to be locked for the day by as early as 11am. This has all been
an intentional part of the plan to suppress dv cases while fooling
the public. The severe injury this scheme has caused women in
the county is incalculable.
- DV court must be
restructured from top to bottom. In particular dv court must
take on the criminal prosecution of domestic violence cases
when the defendant pleads "not guilty'.
Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs
Association Meetings Must be on the Public Record
law enforcement policies are forged at the monthly meetings of
the police chiefs, the DA, and the probation chief. Whatever loophole
the DA and chiefs have used to justify holding these meetings
behind closed doors is irrelevant. We live in a democracy and
public business must be conducted on the public record.
Law enforcement chiefs
around the county should listen hard to the voter's March 5th
message. People are fed up in a very big way with the arrogant,
unilateral, and abusive law enforcement practices of this county.
The fact that so many in law enforcement were certain that Mullins
would win is proof of just how out of touch law enforcement really
is with public outrage at law enforcement misconduct. Coming out
of hiding and into the daylight is a necessary first step in restoring
If at one point or
another the Chiefs' Association must deal with personnel or other
justifiably sensitive issues, then, of course, these issues can
be heard in special session off the record, just as is done by
any other public body. But first the case must be made for taking
the issue off the record. Apart from those occasional instances,
the Chiefs' Association meetings must be fully recorded on the
Complete Statistics on Violence Against Women and Obey Public
Not only has the DA's
office been contemptuous of public record law, but when certain
statistics have shed bad light on the office, Mullins has simply
ceased to compile those particular statistics.
- The DA's office
must keep statistics which break out the number of felony and
misdemeanor convictions obtained in domestic violence, sexual
assault, and child abuse cases.
- Those statistics
must be provided to the public in full compliance with public
Advocates Must Be Completely Independent
of Law Enforcement Control
The last eight years
have seen an enormous increase in federal Violence Against Women
Act moneys going to battered women's shelters and rape crisis
centers. A serious downside of this money is that California (and
a number of other states) requires victim service agencies to
obtain the signatures of the DA and all local police chiefs on
their annual grant renewal requests. This gives the DA and law
enforcement absolute veto power over the primary funding for victim
advocates. In Sonoma County, by threatening refusals or by actual
refusal to sign, Mullins and other law enforcement chiefs have
all but crushed effective victim advocacy in Sonoma County.
It's a gross conflict
of interest to have victim advocates financially dependent on
DA and police approval. The ultimate solution to this problem
lies in changing the state policies for allocating the federal
violence against women funds. But in the interim it is vital to
women's lives in Sonoma County that we insist the DA and other
law enforcement chiefs cease all threats and conditions for signing
victim services grant renewal requests.
DA's Must Be Adequately Trained on Rape, Domestic Violence, and
Child Abuse Prosecution
Before beginning an
assignment on the violence against women or child abuse team,
deputies must be given intensive training in the prosecution of
these cases. Currently they receive no such training. The curriculum
must be available to the public. We recommend ex-deputy DA Donna
Ryan be hired to implement and supervise prosecutor training on
violence against women and children cases.
When news broke that
deputy DA Brooke Halsey was involved in six months of crafting
perjured testimony on the Pelfini domestic violence homicide case,
the community was shocked. However, those who work in tandem with
the DA's office were not surprised at all. In fact, in the years
leading up to this event, a full range of professionals - police,
advocates, victims, and other prosecutors - had been complaining
to DA Mullins about Halsey's career of misconduct. Mullins' unwillingness
to discipline Halsey at any point led directly to the extreme
of abuses in Pelfini.
Most of the recommendations
we lay out aim at establishing one form or another of DA accountability
and discipline in the office. What we emphasize here is that all
such systems must be codified and open to public review.
Investigators Must Work for a Living
The DA's office employs
a division of sworn, highly paid investigators whose written job
description is to fill in investigative tasks needed on cases
being charged by the office. The reality in Sonoma County is that
this is a plum job for cops who want to get out of doing a day's
work. Although a few work of their own accord, too many do not
and are never castigated. Even high level prosecutors in charge
of high profile cases cannot get many of these investigators to
work. And when assigned to rape and domestic violence, all too
many of these investigators are the primary culprits in berating,
intimidating, and mistreating victims in the hope the victims
will just go away.
- Time/work studies
must be done on all DA investigators.
Civilian Review of the District Attorney
In order for women
and children ever to obtain equal justice and protection from
the criminal justice system it is essential to create legislated
checks on the DA's absolute power and discretion to reject cases
at will. For many reasons we discuss elsewhere, until these legal
checks exist DA's will continue to disproportionately and wholesale
dump violence against women and children cases as the primary
buffer on holding down the overall office workload. The only interim
solution is for communities themselves to establish formal civilian
oversight of the DA's handling of rape, domestic violence, and
child abuse cases.
Two thirds of Sonoma
county residents favor civilian review of police, but civilian
review of the DA is even more important since the DA's sits at
the apex of the criminal justice system. The DA's decisions about
which cases to prioritize directly controls police decisions.
It's human nature. It will be impossible to motivate police to
handle these cases properly if the DA won't file on the work.
Press Democrat must stop covering up
District Attorney abuses
The press should function
as the most significant civilian oversight in any community. Yet
for eight years of Mullins' reign the Press Democrat has gone
out of its way to protect Mullins and keep documented evidence
of Mullin's abuses from the public. The Press Democrat must examine
the role of its lapdog journalism in permitting DA abuses and
the mutinous atmosphere in the DA's office to reach the disastrous
extremes that it did.
Benefits of a just and fair criminal justice system will be felt
in every corner of our community
In order for the good
and talented people in law enforcement to prevail, it's ultimately
the community that must set the stage. The election of Stephen
Passalaqua was a monumental first step.
stop now. Get involved today!