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Orange County D.A. to Drop Prosecution of Some Misdemeanors : Finances: Bankruptcy has led to a 10% reduction in legal staff. One official predicts an increase in minor crimes and decline in the quality of life for residents.

May 23, 1995|SUSAN MARQUEZ OWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — In one of the small perversities of post-bankruptcy life in Orange County, petty criminals will reap the benefits of life among the financial ruins.

Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said Monday that because of bankruptcy-related cutbacks, his office will no longer prosecute lesser misdemeanor offenses such as trespassing, disturbing the peace, driving without a license and possession of alcohol by minors.

As it is, such prosecutions rarely result in jail time. But officials nonetheless predicted that the public will notice the change.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Brent Romney said he expects an increase in such crimes as people learn that the odds of landing in jail have shrunk even further.

"We call cases like these 'quality of life' cases," Romney said. "What will happen is that while Orange County is now a delightful place to live . . . the quality of life is going to deteriorate."

From now on, the less serious misdemeanors will be filed by police officers as infractions and be handled by the courts in the same manner as traffic tickets. Since jail time cannot be imposed, defendants will no longer be entitled to jury trials. The maximum penalty will be $250.

The changes are in response to the latest cutbacks forced by Orange County's Dec. 6 filing for bankruptcy protection, which has left Capizzi's office with 10% fewer lawyers. The office's budget for next year has been cut $4.1 million.

"Because of the increase in more serious felony and misdemeanor cases and the decrease in the number of attorneys available to handle these cases, priority must be given to the more serious offenses," Capizzi said in a prepared statement.

Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Dan Martini said the new procedures will make it tougher for officers in the field who may have to deal with more repeat offenders.

"We'll continue to do our jobs, but our concern is that if you minimize the offense, if you can't book them, then you take a tool away from the officer," Martini said. "You may send a message that it's a lesser offense."

The district attorney's office prosecutes misdemeanor offenses for all Orange County cities except Anaheim, which has it own staff of prosecutors.

Romney said state law gives district attorneys the authority to decide whether to pursue less serious offenses as misdemeanors or infractions.

Earlier this month, Capizzi's office announced plans to eliminate 10 positions, including one attorney's post, and reassign three prosecutors who previously specialized in arson cases, crimes against the elderly and child abuse. The 10 eliminated positions were in addition to 90 positions in the office left unfilled, including 22 attorneys' slots.

Overall, the office is down 23 attorneys, or about 10% of such positions, Romney said.

Capizzi also said that because of the short staffing, prosecutors will be unable to take advantage of a recent change in state law that allows agencies to impound cars and trucks driven by unlicensed drivers with prior convictions, then auction the vehicles and reap part of the profit.

"Enforcement of this statute in this county would have a tremendous deterrent effect upon individuals who insist on driving while their license is suspended," Capizzi said.

"We want to enforce this law, and we are willing to enforce this law. But because of the most recent budget cuts, we are unable to prosecute these cases. We simply do not have enough attorneys to do so."

County prosecutors also will forgo filing misdemeanor counts on such offenses as zoning and building code violations, he said.

The budget crisis comes as county prosecutors are handling a rising number of felony cases.

Prosecutors filed 12,318 felony cases last year, a 4% increase over 1993, and the number is expected to go up further this year, for a total increase of 10% during two years.

The district attorney's office was also confronted with a 49% increase in felony jury trials last year because of the new "three strikes" law, Romney said.

Because violent felons convicted of a third offense now face a mandatory 25 years to life in state prison, many defendants insist on trials rather than entering into plea agreements.

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