A recent effort to streamline the handling of misdemeanor cases in Municipal Court threatens to undermine the successful prosecution of the so-called quality of life crimes that have been the focus of community policing efforts in the 1990s, critics charge.
Los Angeles prosecutors fear that crimes such as prostitution, drug use, vandalism and drinking in public may no longer get the attention they deserve under a new policy written by the city's outgoing top municipal judge.
The policy, which will be reviewed at the end of March, was created to increase efficiency at the courthouse by reducing the number of pretrial court hearings for misdemeanor cases from two to one. The program was enacted without fanfare in the Municipal Court downtown last spring and took effect in the San Fernando Valley on Nov. 24.
Prosecutors and court officials, who say they plan to track the progress of cases under the new system, add that it is still too early to tell, even downtown, what impact the change is having.
The new system allows one chance for prosecutors' witnesses to appear in court, raising fears that a growing number of misdemeanor cases will be dismissed, in part because police officers, who may be on vacation or otherwise occupied, will fail to appear in court.
The change, say prosecutors, may hinder their ability to properly assess the strength of cases and could lead to lenient sentences in plea bargains.
"This is counter to everything we've been seeing with community policing," said Maureen Siegel, chief of the city attorney's criminal law division. "Misdemeanor crimes are important. But they are becoming crimes without consequence."
Municipal Judge Mel Red Recana, who wrote the new policy before ending his second one-year term as presiding judge last Friday, said it will save time and money.
Under the old system, people charged with misdemeanor crimes had two pretrial court hearings during which prosecutors and defense attorneys could settle the case through a plea bargain.
Recana, in a memo to The Times, said two hearings are not necessary, because an "insignificant" number of cases were settled during the first pretrial hearing. The "vast majority," he wrote, were put off until the final day allowed under speedy trial laws.
In the memo, the judge wrote: "Unfortunately, the culture of litigation of criminal cases has developed a disturbing tendency not to act until the last day. This policy is both a reflection of that culture and a reaction to that culture."
Prosecutors, however, cite a recent court study showing that 28% of misdemeanor cases were resolved before time expired.
Assistant Presiding Municipal Judge Veronica McBeth, who replaced Recana, said of the controversy: "It's being done on a pilot basis--it's not ground in cement. As it goes along, we'll monitor the effect that it has. We're going to make sure that everybody's rights are respected and that it works efficiently."
Earl Thomas, the assistant chief in the city attorney's criminal division, said the court is shirking its duties under the policy.
"The judges are allowing these cases to go to the end without trying to resolve them early," he said. "They've stopped even trying."
But Bill Weiss, the head deputy in the public defender's office in Van Nuys, agreed with Recana.
"The nature of the beast is that cases don't tend to settle until there's no further time," Weiss said. "Defendants are not willing to enter pleas until they know witnesses are going to show up in court and the prosecutor has a case prepared--that's just common sense."
Weiss added: "What the policy does do is force prosecutors to be more prepared and work harder."
Thomas and Siegel, of the city attorney's office, disagree.
"The problem with getting rid of the interim setting is that we're left with one chance and one chance only to get our witnesses," Siegel said. "We may not know the value of the case until the very last minute, until we see the whites of their eyes if you will."
The policy change, Siegel said, will result in a tremendous advantage for defense attorneys.
"They'll be able to wait you out, push you to the last day," Siegel said, "so you'll have to do pleas you wouldn't like to do."
Under the new system, police will be subpoenaed to testify in domestic violence crimes and others that were originally filed as felonies but reduced to misdemeanors.
Officers will be on call--which does not require their presence by court order--for all other cases, including prostitution, drug possession, petty theft and disturbing the peace.
LAPD Cmdr. Richard LeGarra acknowledged that under the new system "we're just going to have to do our job and make sure that officers show up. We need to put emphasis that if an officer is on call he needs to get there."
Recana said the new program was modeled after a similar program in Superior Court, which reduced the number of pretrial hearings in felony cases.