Los Angeles Continued Prosecuting Low-Level Offenses Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Under their state’s rules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Californians are not supposed to leave home except to pick up groceries or prescriptions, go to the doctor, and commute to jobs deemed essential. As part of this effort, prosecutors — including Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey — have pledged to avoid dragging people into court or sending them to the city’s overcrowded jail for cases that can be dismissed or handled at a later date.

“I have asked my attorneys to consider the health risks in every decision they make,” Lacey said in a March 20 statement. “I have directed them to consider ways to keep nonviolent felony and misdemeanor offenders out of our jails and courthouses during this pandemic,” she continued. 

Despite these assurances, since California’s shelter-in-place mandate went into effect more than 10 days ago, Lacey’s office has pursued cases against individuals accused of panhandling, drinking in public, driving with a suspended license, drug possession, and loitering, according to a review by former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is running to replace Lacey as LA’s top prosecutor.

Prosecuting low-level misdemeanors “will very possibly cost lives,” Gascón said in a statement on Monday outlining his own recommendations for prosecutorial conduct during the pandemic. Merely holding hearings means defendants, their lawyers, prosecutors, judges, sheriff’s deputies, clerks, court reporters, and translators have to gather together in the same room, he noted — at a time when people are being instructed to avoid congregating in groups.

On March 20, the day after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered the state’s residents to stay home, a man facing charges for drug possession and driving with a suspended license had a hearing in an Inglewood courtroom. Prosecutors filed a case against him at a time when LA County courts were mostly closed earlier this month. His case was dismissed in court, but only after he had spent six days in jail and long after people began warning about the risk of the coronavirus spreading in jail and prison populations. 

That same day, three people in LA County were arraigned on a drinking-in-public citation. At least one of the defendants was ordered to attend 26 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings before their next court date, which would require them to either leave their home and congregate in a group setting or have reliable, private access to a computer and the internet for online meetings.

Those charges “could have been unilaterally dismissed or continued for up to one year,” Gascón said. “Bear in mind these drinking in public cases are proceeding at a time when the state is allowing cocktails to be served to go.”

Last Wednesday, another man had a court hearing in Compton for driving on a suspended license. A deputy district attorney opposed releasing the individual from custody, which Gascón said was likely an effort “to force a plea in exchange for their release.” Ricardo Santiago, a spokesman for Lacey’s office, denied that the prosecutor had opposed the individual’s release.

On Friday, a judge in El Monte heard cases about a loitering citation and a misdemeanor panhandling case. Both matters were dismissed that day. 

These kinds of low-level cases “should have either been continued to a later date or unilaterally dismissed by the DA in advance of the hearing to avoid forcing so many persons to congregate,” Gascón said. “It is simply not logical to insist that low-level misdemeanors proceed as scheduled when there is no serious threat to the community.”

Asked about the decisions to prosecute these cases, Santiago said that not all of the defendants appeared in court and some of the cases were dismissed.

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