music in the park san jose

San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield plans to
expand his zero-tolerance policy prohibiting plea bargains for gun
and gang crimes by requiring defendants in every case either plead
guilty to criminal charges as filed or face jury trials.
Hollister – San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield plans to expand his zero-tolerance policy prohibiting plea bargains for gun and gang crimes by requiring defendants in every case either plead guilty to criminal charges as filed or face jury trials.

However, the policy, instituted today in response to a recent rash of gun and gang crimes, could back up the already congested judicial system and cause less serious cases to be dismissed, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders said. And the policy is irksome to some local defense attorneys who believe they should be able to negotiate lesser charges with the District Attorney’s Office.

“We’re already the busiest court in the state. If the policy results in more jury trials that will have an impact on the courts,” he said. “We’re set up for two trials a month, but if you force everyone to plea to the sheet you’re going to run out of resources or have to dismiss cases.”

But Sarsfield believes the policy is necessary and will serve as a deterrent to crime.

“I’m very concerned with what I’ve seen – there appears to be a serious escalation in crime,” he said. “We’re taking a hard line, we are not going to plea bargain anything.”

Sanders declined to comment on the merits of the District Attorney’s policy, but said he does not think it will deter crime because criminals don’t think about plea bargains while breaking the law. He is more concerned about the policy possibly increasing court congestion.

The county’s presiding judge also believes the policy will be difficult to maintain, and he anticipates local defense attorneys will advise clients to retain their right to a speedy trial in hopes that the charges will be dropped because the District Attorney’s Office is too busy prosecuting others.

In order to make sure cases aren’t dismissed because his staff is overburdened, Sarsfield plans to take on a larger caseload. He will take over the entire juvenile caseload that used to be divided up among his three deputy district attorneys. Although the policy will generate additional work, Sarsfield doesn’t anticipate any problems.

“It makes our job very simple,” he said. “Once we decide what the appropriate charges are, that’s it – you plead to that or you get a jury trial. And we win almost every time when we go to jury trial.”

Local defense attorney Harry Damkar, who served as the county’s district attorney for two decades before Sarsfield took over in 2002, called the policy a “big mistake” and also believes it will back up the court system.

“If you’re not willing to negotiate it’s going to throw a big monkey wrench in the system,” he said. “I think this is going to be a very inefficient way to dispose of cases in the judicial system.”

Damkar predicts that the district attorney won’t be able to keep up with the court calendar, either.

“Everybody is going to be requesting jury trials,” he said. “So pretty soon these trials will back up and will end up being dismissed because they won’t be getting speedy trials.”

All charges will be dismissed if they aren’t filed within the required period of time, but in felony cases the district attorney has up to one year to re-file the charges, Sarsfield said. Damkar believes the no-plea bargain policy will force his clients to put their lives on hold while awaiting charges because it will take the district attorney longer to charge people with the increased burden of jury trials. But Sarsfield said he wasn’t concerned about inconveniencing the lives of criminals.

Since Sarsfield has already reduced many misdemeanor crimes – such as possession of less than one ounce of marijuana – to infractions, he doesn’t anticipate any serious cases slipping through the cracks.

“We took the minor crimes out of the system – they are just going to traffic court,” he said. “We’re not over-reaching. What that leaves is the serious crimes that most people believe should be prosecuted vigorously.”

Although minor crimes are being handled in traffic court, speed is always a factor in criminal cases. By law, the district attorney has a window of 30 to 60 days – depending on whether it is a misdemeanor or felony case – to file charges before the case is dismissed, Sanders said. Sanders believes the no-plea bargain policy could also deplete local law enforcement agency resources.

“It’s rare to see that 100 percent of cases are charged appropriately,” he said. “It would take a lot more investigation, which could impact the police department and sheriff’s office.”

Sarsfield disagreed and said his office only charges people with crimes that can be proven in a court of law.

“We don’t overcharge,” he said. “We rarely don’t get past a preliminary (hearing).”

Sarsfield will grant exemptions for any good faith agreements reached prior to the implementation of the new policy today.

“If there was an offer made, we will honor it,” he said. “Otherwise, they will plead or go to jury trial.”

Brett Rowland covers education for the Free Lance. He can be reached at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or [email protected].

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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