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Approaches to Felonies Differ--as Do Results : Crime: D.A. defends O.C. filing philosophy, but other counties do it differently--and more successfully.

A QUESTION OF JUSTICE. Why Orange County Doesn't Measure Up. Second of two parts

July 31, 1995|MARK PLATTE and DAN WEIKEL and MARK LANDSBAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The American Bar Assn. says the district attorney's role in police training "cannot be casual or occasional, but must be carefully organized and presented. The function of the prosecutor is so important that allowance must be made in the budget for whatever personnel are required to perform effective police training."

Capizzi said his office provides a training officer to work with the police and a video training tape that is also circulated around police departments. Officers also receive training at the police academy before they join the force, and are periodically retrained through the academy, Capizzi said.

Police officers "are doing their job very well, operating under the rules they are permitted to operate under, and the restrictions they have upon them. . . . When the baton is handed off to us, I think we're doing well."

Capizzi said he works "very, very closely with the chiefs of police and I sense they are very happy with the way we are performing our role in this criminal justice system."

But the district attorney's offices in San Diego and Santa Clara counties--the two California counties closest in population and crime to Orange County--seem to enjoy a much closer working relationship with police agencies.

In San Diego County, the use of a deputy district attorney to work in the San Diego Police Department is recognized nationally as a model of good police-prosecutor relationships.

"When I was assigned over there, the idea was to get the D.A.'s office to intervene on a case as early as possible," said Mike Carleton, who had the job from 1981 until he was promoted earlier this year to run the East County branch of the San Diego district attorney's office.

"We wanted to avoid mistakes in the initial investigation and put out fires before they became bigger," Carleton said. "I think we were able to put the cops on the right track early on."

Unlike Orange County, San Diego County has a written set of "felony issuance" guidelines, which describe the instances in which police officers should submit a case to the district attorney as felonies, and which should be sent to the San Diego city attorney as misdemeanors.

Police know upfront that they need not seek a felony after arresting someone for stealing property valued at $1,500 or less. Petty theft with a prior felony conviction calls for an automatic felony filing. Spousal abuse with a significant injury is treated as a felony, the guidelines say.

In Santa Clara County, prosecutors say they go weekly, sometimes more often, to local departments to train police in report writing, investigative techniques and case preparation. The instruction includes post-mortems on successful and unsuccessful cases.

"The whole team knows what everyone else is doing, from D.A. to detective to patrol officer," said Lt. Phil Beltran, the training commander for the San Jose Police Department. "D.A.s come through all the time. They tell us how cases are won and lost."

By way of contrast, a training sergeant for one of Orange County's larger police agencies said, "I can't recall ever seeing a felony filing deputy come over to this department."

"I don't think the D.A. has ever given us [any instruction] related to felony filing," the sergeant said.

The bottom line is that more than half of Orange County's felony arrestees end up being charged with misdemeanors.

Cypress has one of the worst records among law enforcement agencies when it comes to getting felony arrestees charged with felonies, and Lt. Jim Weuve of that department said he is not at all surprised.

Often, Weuve said, his agency arrests burglars it can prove had an intent to steal, but the district attorney's office files a misdemeanor petty theft charge.

"The D.A. says, 'Yes, it's a felony arrest,' but they don't have the time or the desire, I guess, to prosecute it as a felony."

Weuve said he can understand why it happens: the Orange County D.A.'s office looks at a felony charge as one that should result in a state prison sentence and simply does not think of some arrests, such as the burglary of an inexpensive item, as worthy of prison.

In 23 years as a law enforcement officer, Weuve said, he has seen many of his cases downgraded to misdemeanors or not filed at all.

"We hear that a case lacks jury appeal; or on sexual assault cases that it's a one-on-one situation and can't be won; or a domestic violence case where the woman is beaten up very badly that is downgraded to a misdemeanor," he said.

"Like any other profession, you have the good and bad at the D.A.'s office. Some are outstanding and others are lazy and take the easy way out."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Measures of Success

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