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City's Still Guilty, but Not as Seriously

April 03, 2001|STANLEY ALLISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So they are misdemeanors after all.

After Huntington Beach threatened to withdraw its guilty plea for violating water laws because prosecutors insisted the crimes were felonies, the two sides agreed Monday they are, in fact, misdemeanors.

The city and prosecutors spent months negotiating a plea agreement after the district attorney and state water officials determined the city had knowingly discharged sewage from its decaying sewer system and had failed to report it.

The city understood it would be pleading guilty to misdemeanors. After the pleas were entered, prosecutors insisted the charges were felonies.

Adding to the confusion, the court documents didn't state if the charges were felonies or misdemeanors. Instead, the record says the city was guilty of a "public offense."

Under state law, a public offense can be a felony, misdemeanor or infraction.

The penalties imposed--five years' probation and $250,000 to clean up damage caused by the leaking sewage--essentially converted the charges to misdemeanors, city officials said.

The district attorney's office continued to classify the charges as felonies, so the city threatened to withdraw its plea and set up a legal battle.

At a hearing Monday, both sides agreed the sentence makes the case a misdemeanor.

Said Gary Pohlson, the city's attorney: "It's very important for the city of Huntington Beach to not be perceived as having engaged in felony conduct, because [it] didn't."

Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.

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