LA prosecutors took George Gascon to court and won. Judge James Chalfant ruled against newly-elected LADA George Gascon, issuing a preliminary injunction blocking some of Gascon’s “special directives.”
Chalfant ruled that the Penal Code requires prosecutors to plead an prove “strike” priors. Gascon’s orders not to plead and prove these priors is illegal. He also ruled that prosecutors cannot move to dismiss these priors without legal cause. Gascon’s order to do so, he held, was not legal cause. He held:
The District Attorney’s disregard of the Three Strikes ‘plead and prove’ requirement is unlawful, as is requiring deputy district attorneys to seek dismissal of pending sentencing enhancements without a lawful basis. An injunction against a public official’s unlawful actions cannot, by definition, interfere with the lawful exercise of the official’s duties.
Chalfant Condemned Gascon in the Strongest Terms and Vindicated His Critics
Chalfant used extraordinary language condemning Gascon.
On December 7, 2020, when Gascón assumed the Office, he attempted to uproot the long-standing system of sentencing enhancements, including the Three Strikes law for prior convictions. Legislating by fiat, Respondent Gascón issued a series of special directives that all but repealed California’s sentencing enhancement laws and commanded his employees—Los Angeles County…prosecutors sworn to uphold and enforce the law—to violate numerous statutory mandates and refrain from performing their duties under the law.
Chalfant’s ruling vindicated prosecutors who had spoken out against Gascon. Chalfant said that Gascon had ordered his prosecutors to violate the law, their oaths of office, and their ethical responsibilities.
Portions of the Special Directives prohibit deputy district attorneys from complying with their ministerial prosecutorial duties in violation of the law, their oaths of office, and their ethical responsibilities as officers of the court [….] The unlawful conduct includes barring deputy district attorneys from charging enhancements they statutorily are obligated to charge, barring deputy district attorneys from complying with their ministerial duty to exercise case-by-case discretion to maintain or move to dismiss charges, mandating that deputy district attorneys move to dismiss special circumstance allegations that cannot be dismissed by law, and mandating that deputy district attorneys attempt to unilaterally abandon a prosecution where a judge denied a motion to dismiss [….] Deputy district attorneys risk contempt of court or discipline by the State Bar each time they undertake this conduct.
Gascon Won An Early Victory on Other Sentence Enhancements
Although prosecutors may now file strikes, other sentencing enhancements remain banned in Los Angeles. Judge Chalfant declined to issue a preliminary injunction preventing Gascon from using a blanket policy to disallow the use of these enhancements. The Metropolitan News-Enterprise has this quote from a prosecutor:
As for new filings, it looks like as of now, Gascon can file cases without the special circ allegations, and without the [great bodily injury], gun, gang and other enhancements. This will decrease the number and types of convictions that will qualify as future strike priors.
For example, if a husband batters his wife, he would be guilty of a felony. If he broke her bones, prosecutors used to be able to add three years to the sentence for the infliction of great bodily injury. This is no longer on the table.
Chalfant Trashed Gascon’s Infamous “Script”
After judges began denying Gascon’s motions to dismiss strike priors, Gascon issued an order requiring his prosecutors to claim the Three Strikes Law was unconstitutional. Specifically, prosecutors would have to read from a script which included this claim. The script omitted law that held the opposite of Gascon’s claim: that Three Strikes was constitutional. Prosecutors cannot mislead the court by omitting law. Chalfant agreed that prosecutors could not be put in this ethical bind.
Local Media Coverage Was Heavily Biased Towards Gascon
The Los Angeles Times covered this story under the headline, “Several of D.A. George Gascon’s reforms blocked by L.A. County judge.” The article does not explain how ordering your deputies to break the law and act unethical is a “reform.” They described the ADDA’s position as an “allegation” even though it has now been validated by Judge Chalfant. They reprinted large parts of Gascon’s arguments to the judge, even though they had been rejected by the judge.
Instead of focusing on the illegality of the orders and their unethical requirements, the LA Times described the dispute as “a broader divide between traditionalist and reform-minded prosecutors.” They describe the union as the “old guard of district attorneys.” Their article concludes with a pro-Gascon quote from one of his allies.
The LA Times, which endorsed Gascon, also ran an editorial titled, “Archaic ‘tough-on-crime’ holdouts are refusing to let George Gascon do his job.” Missing the point entirely, the editorial focuses on the history of policing and the CDCR, and decries mass incarceration. It does not address the disturbing fact that an elected official ordered his subordinates to do illegal and unethical things. The board wrote, “elections mean little if victors are denied the ability to shift direction.” Of course, election victors can’t shift direction by breaking the law. The Metropolitan News-Enterprise was ran a detailed refutation of the LA Times’ position. Finally, an LA Times opinion columnist ran a pro-Gascon piece as well.
LA’s local NPR station followed the LA Times in describing Gascon’s illegal orders as “reforms.” Their article is marginally better than the LA Times article, but still contains inaccurate language and allows Gascon the last word.
Reactions From the Union and Its Allies
The victorious ADDA said:
The court ruled as we expected in holding that the District Attorney cannot order his prosecutors to ignore laws that protect the public from repeat offenders. As detailed in our reply brief, the court ruled that the District Attorney’s policy violated the law to benefit criminal defendants and ordered him to comply with the law. This ruling protects the communities which are disproportionately affected by higher crime rates and those who are victimized. […] This decision was based on what the law is and not what an officeholder thinks it should be.
Gascon critic and LA Deputy District Attorney John Hatami said:
Today’s decision is more than a humiliating rebuke of Gascón. It is a reminder that no one is above the law and the law in Los Angeles is not determined by one man, no matter how much of an opportunist, but by the people of the state of California. It is a victory for the community, victims, survivors, and their families and a reminder to all DDA’s that we are required to follow the law, not the demands of the DA or any elected or unelected official. We swore an oath, we must hold to it. Always do the right thing. Always fight for justice for the most vulnerable in our society. Today is a good day, L.A., justice was done.
One of Gascon’s predecessors, Steve Cooley, told the Met News:
Judge Chalfant’s decision is to be lauded for its great attention to the fine points of the law and his sensitivity to the serious ethical problems created for Deputy DAs by Gascón’s directives. That being said, there is only one ultimate solution to the public safety threat posed by Gascón and that is Gascón’s recall. The website for the recall effort is recallgeorgegascon.com.
Fresno DA Lisa Smittcamp said:
Today Judge Chalfant stood up to George Gascon and his illegal directives that seek to threaten the safety of the people of Los Angeles County, and all residents of California. Gascon is not a criminal justice reformer. He is an anarchist. He is a rogue that is disguising himself as a District Attorney. He isn’t in office to promote public safety, to assist victims of crime, and to help keep children out of gangs. He is there to push an agenda that protects violent gang members, career criminals, and those who have a reckless disregard for human life. Today, I salute Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Chalfant for ordering George Gascon to abide by the law.
Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said:
The court’s ruling reinforces what had already become all too clear: that George Gascón has been commanding his deputy district attorneys to violate the law and their ethical duties since he took office, all for the benefit of ensuring that criminals receive the most lenient sentences possible. In all the argument put forward by Gascón, the judge found that ‘there is not a single reference to a concern for victims in the sentencing process,’ and that most of Gascón’s directives fail to consider or even mention victims or their rights. This injunction is a win for everyone who values the rule of law, public safety, and the rights of crime victims.
Reactions from Gascon and His Allies
Gascon said he would appeal the ruling. In the meantime, he said he would follow the ruling, which he claimed did not affect most of his directives.
I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism. My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety.
Gascon was forced to revise his special directives.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said that the ruling is a setback for Gascon.
Everything about this is unusual, but it’s not a surprise that it’s happening, given that Gascon is coming in as a progressive or reformer among DAs, many of whom don’t want to reform.
Gascon ally and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin had similar polices. He was forced to defend them. His spokeswoman said that his Three Strikes policy was “not absolute” and that charging decisions will be made “on a case-by-case basis.”
Cover Photo Credit (Youtube.com)