Commentary: Another Look At County Money Wasted on Unnecessary Court Trials

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prison-reformThis past week we ended up covering a very interesting trial that frankly should never have gone to trial.  In his opening statement, the defense attorney acknowledged that they were conceding the basic charges and only disputing the top end charges.

We will have a full report on this case when the jury comes back from deliberations, but we are pretty comfortable, given the facts of this case, in suggesting the individual will be facing a good amount of time in prison and faces an exposure of life.

This begs the question: why did this case even go to trial?  Why spend a week of the court’s time, when the dispute is over a few of the charges?  I asked the defense attorney, outside of the courthouse on Friday, what the offer was from the DA’s office.

His response was something to the effect of, do you think I’m crazy, I never got an offer, if I had I would have taken it.

About a month ago, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors was going over the budget and wondering why the number of trials had gone up while the crime rate remained steady.

Tracie Olson, the Yolo County Public Defender, basically indicated that there needed to be a way for both sides, the DA and the defense, to come to an agreement and avoid trial.

She told the Board of Supervisors, “It is my opinion that the number of jury trials has nothing to do with the crime rate.”

“There are some cases that you just have to try because we think the facts are one way and the District Attorney thinks its the other, both are legitimate, and a jury has to figure out for themselves which ones they believe and which witnesses are credible,” Ms. Olson said.

But this was a case where the DA never even offered any kind of settlement that would free up court time.

Tracie Olson was very diplomatic to the Board of Supervisors, because she put blame on both sides.  She said that there were a lot of jury trials where the two sides should be meeting in the middle.

“We just couldn’t meet on the minutiae,” she said referring to some recent acquittals, “so we ended up having a jury trial, we did a great job, and our clients were acquitted.”

“I think my office would say the DA’s have changed.  I think the DA’s office would say my office has changed,” she said.  “I think they’re both right.”

She also suggested that the courts do not get involved as much as they used to.  By this she meant that judges need to pre-conference cases “in a meaningful way.”  The sides in chamber would lay out their cards and the judges would say, “given this, this is what I would do.”

“Sometimes we don’t have to fight anymore if we know [what a judge is inclined to do given the facts presented to him],” she said.  “So the judges need to do more work and the judges acknowledge that.”

While Ms. Olson was very diplomatic and shared blame, the fact is that the public defender’s office’s first duty is to represent the needs of their clients.  Moreover, the prosecutors really call most of the shots in terms of which charges to file and what deal to make.

One big problem that Ms. Olson did not bring up to the County Board of Supervisors is what appears to be an increasingly top-down operation in the DA’s office.  One defense attorney told me that under the previous DA David Henderson, the deputy DA’s had a lot of discretion in terms of making deals and reaching plea agreements, with the exception of murder trials (which obviously makes a good deal of sense).

However, we have been told, particularly on gang cases, that the deputy district attornies have no discretion.  All of the calls on the gang injunction trial apparently came from Jeff Reisig himself and his supervising DA, Garrett Hamilton.

But it is not just on the gang case, as we have frequently seen cases where the deputy DA and the defense attorney have reached some sort of tentative agreement, but the deputy DA had to clear the agreement with his or her supervisor.

We have never seen the public defender’s office operate in the same way.  Part of that is the client is the ultimate decider as to whether or not to take any plea agreement.

But it is more than that.  There are cases that the top brass have told the deputy DA’s that they simply cannot drop.  At times we have heard through the grapevine that deputy DA’s do not want to try a particular case, their body language definitely shows it, but they have no other choice.

One such case may be the re-trial of Jose Valenzuela, who was acquitted of stabbing one individual and had the jury hand an 11-1 decision in his favor on the second individual.  The DA’s office has elected to retry that case, despite the low probability of conviction, and that order has come from the top.

People have often asked, when someone gets some seemingly absurdly long prison sentence in a case that went to trial, what the offer was.  More and more we are discovering that there either is no offer or the offer is just as bad as the ultimate sentence. 

Most of the time, the public defender’s office, even when their client is convicted, gets a better deal by going to trial than any deal they are offered.

That is a problem in two ways.  First, because it means that the DA’s office is misreading their evidence and pushing for too harsh a punishment.  Second, it means that valuable and scarce resources are wasted. 

We have seen layoffs to Sheriff’s Deputies, the threatened closure of a County Jail, the possibility of some crimes not getting prosecuted and other problems, and yet, we have seen little evidence that the DA’s office has changed their way of thinking.  If anything, it is becoming more and not less rigid.

In the end, I agree with Tracie Olson.  There are cases where the facts and the dispute of facts dictate that there must be a trial.  But there are a lot of cases that should not go to trial, and it would save the county money if the DA changed the way they handled these matters.

It is ironic that this week we saw yet another delay in the Topete case, that is rapidly approaching a three-year duration.  People around the court are now wondering out loud why Judge Richardson allowed the very capable but nevertheless 83-year-old Thomas Purtell to serve as co-counsel for the defense of a death penalty case.

With his stroke, the trial is at least delayed another two weeks, and far more likely a few months.

One of the defense attorneys around the court suggested to me early this week that if the DA would simply drop the death penalty as a consideration, the trial could be done in two weeks.  I told him they could probably get a LWOP (life without parole) plea and end it tomorrow if they offered it.  How much money would the state and the county save if that were to occur?

Everyone else is having to cut spending in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the depression.  And yet, for the DA’s office it is largely business as usual, and this is money that could be saved with a minimal impact on the public or law enforcement.

—David M. Greenwald

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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13 thoughts on “Commentary: Another Look At County Money Wasted on Unnecessary Court Trials”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “She also suggested that the courts do not get involved as much as they used to. By this she meant that judges need to pre-conference cases “in a meaningful way.” The sides in chamber would lay out their cards and the judges would say, “given this, this is what I would do.”
    “Sometimes we don’t have to fight anymore if we know [what a judge is inclined to do given the facts presented to him],” she said. “So the judges need to do more work and the judges acknowledge that.”
    While Ms. Olson was very diplomatic and shared blame, the fact is that the public defender’s office’s first duty is to represent the needs of their clients. Moreover, the prosecutors really call most of the shots in terms of which charges to file and what deal to make.”

    NO, THE PROSECUTORS DO NOT CALL MOST OF THE SHOTS IF THE JUDGE MAKES IT CLEAR FROM ON HIGH THAT HE WANTS MORE CASES SETTLED. I’ve seen this done in the Sacramento Courts, so it should be done in the Yolo Courts as well. The buck stops with Judge Rosenberg…

    As for the Topete case, a police officer was killed. NO, AND I MEAN NO DA would ask anything less than the death penalty for such a case, if the death penalty as a punishment exists within the state. Using the Topete case to make your “case” against the Yolo County DA as overzealous is a nonstarter.

  2. Superfluous Man

    ERM,

    “NO, AND I MEAN NO DA would ask anything less than the death penalty for such a case, if the death penalty as a punishment exists within the state.”

    Although I generally agree with your comment, that a DA would seek the DP in such cases whether for personal or political reasons, there is at least one example proving this notion false.

    Then SF DA Kamala Harris didn’t seek the DP in the case of an alleged/admitted gang member’s fatal shooting of a SFPD officer. Interestingly, she would later be elected, to my surprise and belief that she was “too weak on crime” for the people, to CA’s highest ranking law enforcement post as the AG.

  3. JustSaying

    [quote]“This begs the question: why did this case even go to trial? Why spend a week of the court’s time, when the dispute is over a few of the charges?”[/quote]What’s the nature of the charges? Does the DA feel confident he can get a conviction on the “few” top-end charges (ones on which the defense wouldn’t bargain)? Why is this a good example of a “case that frankly should never have gone to trial”?

    Why didn’t the defense attorney bring a negotiated plea to the table if the defendant was ready to deal?

    Our law enforcement and criminal court system are designed to respect the rights of accused people while protecting all of us from criminals. Trials by jury are just one of the ways the job gets done. Interesting that the DA gets criticized when he plea-bargains, when he loses at trial and when he wins at trial.

    Arguing that going to trial means that “valuable and scarce resources are wasted” kind of dismisses the concept that it’s their job and ignores the fact that a few more plea bargains added to the many that already occur just won’t have that much budget impact.

  4. Roger Rabbit

    [quote]I’ve seen this done in the Sacramento Courts, so it should be done in the Yolo Courts as well. The buck stops with Judge Rosenberg… [/quote]

    Come on, Rosenberg is a good old boy with Reisig. Judge Rosenberg, Jeff Reisig and Jon Raven all belong to “the Club” Davis Odd Fellows. This is a social club and as members they have loyalties and responsibilities to each other as fellow members. It is hard to claim comradeship if you put a fellow member in his place for wasting tax payer money. Yolo has been and will always be a good old boys club and like most clubs, more business is done at the club than the office.

    As for why can’t anyone stop the DA? That is the problem with the system when you give all this power to someone who does not respect it or his position.

    And like many have said, why should DA Reisig care what you, me or anyone else thinks, he has no reason to change so why should he, it is not his money, his budget is not changed and his salary keeps going up, so I am with him on this point, why should he care?

  5. bachha

    As for the Topete case, a police officer was killed. NO, AND I MEAN NO DA would ask anything less than the death penalty for such a case, if the death penalty as a punishment exists within the state. Using the Topete case to make your “case” against the Yolo County DA as overzealous is a nonstarter.

    DO your research before you write Elaine. I am glad someone proved you wrong on your above statement.

  6. Mr.Toad

    What some other DA might do is one thing. Jeff Reisig is not some other DA and agree with him or not there is no way he would not try to give Topete the chair. Its one thing to talk about not offering reasonable pleas its quite another to expect the DA to pass up a capital case against Topete.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: Your first point is exactly the point that Tracie Olson was making that judges need to get involved more. Your second point has obviously already been proven wrong with the Kamala Harris case. My point was obviously that here is a way during a budget crisis to save money. Bottom line though is that it will likely mean that because Reisig pursued the death penalty other crimes will not get prosecuted.

    Just Saying: “What’s the nature of the charges? Does the DA feel confident he can get a conviction on the “few” top-end charges (ones on which the defense wouldn’t bargain)? Why is this a good example of a “case that frankly should never have gone to trial”? “

    Obviously the DA does feel confident that they can get a conviction on the top end charges. Generally those are the cases where you can get a good settlement on and move on to the case that’s really doubt.

    “Why didn’t the defense attorney bring a negotiated plea to the table if the defendant was ready to deal? “

    That’s not how it works. The DA presents an offer. The defense attorney might suggest to the DA that they would be willing to plea to something, but without an offer, it goes nowhere.

    “Trials by jury are just one of the ways the job gets done. “

    If every case went to trial the system would collapse on itself.

    “Interesting that the DA gets criticized when he plea-bargains, when he loses at trial and when he wins at trial.”

    For different reasons perhaps.

    “Arguing that going to trial means that “valuable and scarce resources are wasted” kind of dismisses the concept that it’s their job and ignores the fact that a few more plea bargains added to the many that already occur just won’t have that much budget impact. “

    I disagree with you on that. Each trial adds a large number of costs. You are talking about attorney time, Judge time, court staff time, and opportunity costs.

    Toad: “Its one thing to talk about not offering reasonable pleas its quite another to expect the DA to pass up a capital case against Topete.”

    Why not if it saves the county $1 million?

  8. JustSaying

    Sorry I didn’t word my question better. Did the defense attny. propose negotiating a plea bargain with the DA in this case? Or just sit quietly, awaiting a DA offer that never came? It seems a defense trial strategy that opens with admitting the “basic charges” (whatever they were) would be one that would have them aggressively pursuing a deal before trial.

    Of course, it the “basic charge” is breaking and entering, and they don’t want to cop to the “high end” act of beating someone senseless who surprised them inside, the DA probably won’t be too interested.

    Sure agree with you that the DA gets criticism “for different reasons perhaps” no matter the outcome of a case. There’s no win-win for the DA’s office.

    How many plea deals are there nowadays? How many more would it take to save big bucks? Maybe you’re correct that there’s opportunity for more large savings from plea bargaining.

    But it seems that lots of the costs already are behind by the time either side would even consider negotiating. And that any “savings” would result in other cases moving ahead faster (still, a good thing), rather than cutbacks in attorneys, judges and court staff.

    You argue that plea bargains result in defendants confessing to things they didn’t do (belong to a gang, etc.). I have a similar problem with them.

    These deals result in too many criminals later claiming they really were innocent–saying that they committed perjury in the deal because they are too poor to mount a defense, that they worry a jury would unfairly convict them, that a judge probably would be more severe and/or __________ (fill in the blank).

    Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em….

  9. E Roberts Musser

    SM: “Although I generally agree with your comment, that a DA would seek the DP in such cases whether for personal or political reasons, there is at least one example proving this notion false.
    Then SF DA Kamala Harris didn’t seek the DP in the case of an alleged/admitted gang member’s fatal shooting of a SFPD officer. Interestingly, she would later be elected, to my surprise and belief that she was “too weak on crime” for the people, to CA’s highest ranking law enforcement post as the AG.”

    This is a shocker, in more ways than one!

  10. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Elaine: Your first point is exactly the point that Tracie Olson was making that judges need to get involved more.”

    And the point that you keep ignoring in favor of blaming the DA all the time…

  11. David M. Greenwald

    JustSaying:

    You’ll see the story shortly if you haven’t already.

    The defense attorney asked for an offer, was hoping for an offer, anything really less than the max charge and never got one. Apparently the DA’s office has a committee that makes these decisions and the committee said they were not interested in making an offer.

    “Sure agree with you that the DA gets criticism “for different reasons perhaps” no matter the outcome of a case. There’s no win-win for the DA’s office. “

    I think you’ll be interested in the current story.

    “How many plea deals are there nowadays? How many more would it take to save big bucks? Maybe you’re correct that there’s opportunity for more large savings from plea bargaining. “

    I think you are reversing it. There are 120 trials, there used to be about half that. That’s a lot of money and a good percentage of those could settle.

    “But it seems that lots of the costs already are behind by the time either side would even consider negotiating. And that any “savings” would result in other cases moving ahead faster (still, a good thing), rather than cutbacks in attorneys, judges and court staff.”

    The less court time, the less the cost to the county. It’s like billing an attorney, court time is pure charge but a negotiation is an offer, a counter offer, a discussion, and boom.

  12. JustSaying

    [quote]“I think you are reversing it. There are 120 trials, there used to be about half that.”[/quote]I just want to better understand your issue here. So, we now have 120 trials each year. How many cases are resolved other ways (plea bargains, guilty pleadings, dismissed by DA, etc.) during the same periods?

    How far back did we average 60 trials a year? And what percentage of the total cases did that represent then? Do you have the history of Yolo County cases since then?

  13. David M. Greenwald

    “How far back did we average 60 trials a year? And what percentage of the total cases did that represent then? Do you have the history of Yolo County cases since then? “

    It wasn’t very long ago, maybe 2006 or 2007.

    Here’s the charts I got from the courts that I used back in February, you can see the trials rising much faster than total number of dispositions…

    [img]https://davisvanguard.org/images/stories/yc-trials-05-10.png[/img]

    [img]https://davisvanguard.org/images/stories/yc-disp-05-10.png[/img]

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