National progressive organizations are paying attention to the Yolo County DA’s race now. Shaun King’s publication, the Appeal, has a June 4 article, “Is the Yolo County District Attorney Betraying CA Voters?”
The Appeal article focuses us on a some additional cases of overcharging. One area that we have noted previously is the DA’s penchant to charge felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor.
The article notes that on March 8, Oleg and Sergey Galushkin, brothers, drove to a local Nugget Market, where “they shoplifted bottles of vodka, lighters, butane and lighter fuel, a total value of under $200. The two then went to a Safeway and took six bottles of vodka and some frozen meat.”
They were eventually arrested and charged with felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, even though they committed thefts under $950 which under California law are consider misdemeanors.
Ultimately the case plead out to misdemeanors.
In another case, “Karina Chavarria shoplifted about $600 worth of merchandise from a Walmart, including bedding, lamps, laundry detergent, and soap. The store recovered all of the items, but Chavarria was charged with a felony, like the Galushkin brothers.”
The Appeal notes that she also pleaded to a misdemeanor and that Jonathan Raven, Chief Deputy DA, said “his office tried to get her into treatment.”
In Davis, “Alec Morgan was charged with a felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor when he and two friends stole two bicycles, both worth under $200, from an apartment complex.”
The article argues that DA Jeff Reisig “has been using his prosecutorial discretion to circumvent Proposition 47 and Proposition 57, two measures that passed in 2014 and 2016 intended to reduce state prison populations. Prop 47 makes certain low-level crimes misdemeanors. But by using a felony charge known as “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor”—the charge makes any theft conducted by more than one person a felony regardless of the amount—Reisig is threatening to send people to prison for minor acts of theft.”
The article notes: “Reisig–like other nominally progressive district attorneys in California–opposed Prop 47 and Prop 57 when they were on the ballot. He argued that Prop 47 was a ‘revolving door’ on crime. In 2003 and 2010, his office had the highest rate of children charged as adults under California’s direct file law.”
The article points out: “In the lead-up to his primary election on June 5, Reisig has promoted his creation of a neighborhood court and other diversion courts, but he has remained a steadfast opponent of criminal justice reforms favored by many California voters. He is one of the many prosecutors in California who have decried Prop 47 as a ‘public safety disaster.’”
Mr. Reisig and others have argued that Prop. 47 “has resulted in shoplifting with impunity because would-be thieves know that they will not go to state prison if their theft is less than $950.”
They note: “Some local California police have argued that they can’t even arrest people for shoplifting because the law doesn’t allow them to be charged with a felony. As a result, they claim, arrestees are released into the community quickly and do not face state prison time.”
The reality is “there is ample evidence to show that crime in California has continued to decline. Even the California Retailers Association, a trade group that advocates for store owners, says that it’s too early to tell if Prop 47 has caused any change in shoplifting patterns.”
However, there is a movement underway to rollback Prop. 47. They argue that shoplifting is increasing. “One major driver of the campaign to roll back Prop 47 is the California Retailers Association. Using anecdotal evidence, the association has helped spread anxiety that shoplifters have formed ‘retail theft rings,’ the equivalent of a shoplifting criminal enterprise. While some thefts are most likely part of a group effort—people may be stealing some products to resell—there’s no official definition of ‘organized retail theft’ beyond the one that the trade association has created.”
The rollback is spearheaded by California Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a Democrat who has endorsed Jeff Reisig and the Republican DA in Sacramento, Anne Marie Schubert.
In a statement released by the California Police Chiefs Association, Cooper said, “Emboldened thieves will continue to extort the law with no consequences, resulting in increased costs for day-to-day essentials for working-class families.”
The partnership includes trade groups like the California Grocers Association, whose policy director said: “Since 2014, we’ve seen a significant increase in both incidents and in the value of cases as it became known that no matter how many times you’re caught—so long as you stay under $950—you’ll just get a citation to show up in court.”
Meanwhile, back in Yolo County, Jonathan Raven explained to the Appeal that the data did not show a significant increase in the number of “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor” charges. The number of cases charged as “conspiracy to commit misdemeanor” more than doubled between 2014—the year that Prop 47 passed— and 2015, from nine to 21. “But at least half of those cases include other felony charges, which Raven argues shows no intent to inflate charges,” the Appeal points out.
He also “pointed out that the number of misdemeanor conspiracy cases was only a small portion of the nearly 4,000 misdemeanors filed in Yolo County every year.”
On the other hand, “Reisig’s decision to charge people with felonies for stealing even a few hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise has become an acceptable move for prosecutors even when the electorate has specifically decided that such thefts should not be punishable by state prison time.”
Tracie Olson, the public defender of Yolo County, said in an email statement: “Jails and prisons should be reserved for those that truly a present danger to public safety. It’s really all about differentiating between those that we are afraid of and those we are simply mad at.”
Mr. Reisig is facing opposition for DA from Dean Johansson, who is arguing against this sort of overcharging.
Jonathan Simon, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied trends in California incarceration, said: “It is important not to underestimate how seriously both prosecutors and police organizations take the very recent and still emerging popular turn against the politics of ‘fear of crime’ that had dominated American politics from LBJ to Obama. …Without the extraordinary valorization of law enforcement freedom of action in the era of fear of crime, the extraordinary expansion of law enforcement power would strike many as intolerable and unconstitutional.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting