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February 2, 2023

Sarsfield met with backlog

At least one case dropped because statute of limitations
Before turning his office into an elite squad of legal eagles
that swoop down on local criminals, new District Attorney John
Sarsfield must get rid of the 150-case backlog he found last week
gathering dust in five cardboard boxes.
Before turning his office into an elite squad of legal eagles that swoop down on local criminals, new District Attorney John Sarsfield must get rid of the 150-case backlog he found last week gathering dust in five cardboard boxes.

Sarsfield said at least one criminal case in the pile involving a shoplifter won’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations ran out as it awaited prosecution. He fears there may be others he hasn’t yet found, but has no idea why so many cases are backlogged.

“That’s a great question,” Sarsfield said. “All I can tell you is there were an awful lot of cases sitting around that should have been reviewed.”

Many of those cases, ranging from bar fights to purse snatchings, have grown “stale” as the time lapse has made it harder to track down witnesses and gather additional evidence, he said.

Sarsfield has separated the cases on a large table for processing, starting with crimes against persons, such as assault and batteries and ending with crimes against property, such as auto theft.

He says he doesn’t know how many cases were left behind by former D.A. Harry Damkar, or even how many fall into each category.

His goal is to have them all processed by next week. While Sarsfield does not know exactly why so many cases were sitting around, he knows what will happen to the new ones.

“The new cases coming in are being processed immediately,” he said.

And some good has, ironically, come out of the DA’s messy backlog, he said. About 25 cases will be sent back to police for further investigation or dropped for lack of evidence. That gives Sarsfield his first chance to prove that he’s the top legal eagle.

Before taking office, Sarsfield talked with many police officers and discovered their No. 1 complaint was the D.A. failing to tell them why cases were sent back or dropped for lack of evidence.

Either Sarsfield or one of his deputy D.A.s will attach a detailed form to each of those cases telling the officers why they were no good. He thinks this will have two results: it will speed up how fast additional investigations are performed, and in the cases where there is insufficient evidence, officers will learn what they can do better next time

Dealing with old cases is hardly where Sarsfield plans to stop improving his department. Prosecutors will have a much better idea of what’s expected, wife and husband beaters will get locked up, snake-oil salesman types will be sued and truants and gangsters will no longer skate through the cracks of law enforcement, he said.

The D.A. and three deputies handle 1,600 criminal cases a year. But the DA has never had a policy manual spelling out how those cases should be handled.

One such gray area is domestic violence cases. In the past, prosecutors could decide on a whim whether to seek jail time or refer offenders to counseling. As a result, roughly two-thirds of domestic violence abusers were referred to therapy.

Sarsfield does not yet know how many cases the office handles a year, but domestic violence offenders will now be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, he said.

Sarsfield also met this week with a newly formed five-member gang taskforce from the Hollister Police Department. Sarsfield declined to discuss what kind of gang crackdown law enforcement is planning – but it’s coming soon, he said.

And Sarsfield has met with high school officials to talk about strengthening

truancy enforcement, a preventive measure. Studies show that communities with large numbers of active truants have higher daytime crime rates.

However, enforcement will be used only in the most extreme cases, he said. In the past, school officials had no legal claws to snatch up truants and their parents.

Now a chronic truant could be looking at a suspended driver’s license and community service. A negligent parent failing to educate their child – home-schooled children are not considered truants – can be fined or charged with child neglect if there is enough evidence.

“Essentially the office has not done much truancy enforcement,” Sarsfield said. “Occasionally they’ll send a letter, but we’re actually going to start prosecutions in the appropriate cases, either against the kid or the parent depending on what’s appropriate and justified.”

Staff Report
A staff member edited this provided article.

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