Petersburg Pilot -

 
 

By Richard A Svobodny
Deputy Attorney General 

Guest Editorial

Dear Mayor Dwyer:

 


Thank you for your letter dated February 6, 2012, regarding the District Attorney's office that provides criminal prosecutions for the residents of Petersburg. I am happy to attend your town meeting and discuss the issues that you identify in your letter. Your letter identifies these issues as – "extremely disturbing statistics related to the dismissal of a high number of charges, extraordinary plea bargains and in all honesty, a seemingly lack of concern on the part of the District Attorney's office." I do want you to know that because of the legislative session it is possible that I will need to have someone substitute for me, at the last minute, due to newly scheduled legislative meetings. Hopefully this will not happen.

I am hopeful that this town meeting will be a forum, not to apportion blame for perceived problems, but rather, to identify real problems and solutions to the problems. I suggest that we work at identifying a common language. For example, when you use the words "dismissal of a high number of charges" I suspect you mean something different than what a prosecutor would mean by a dismissal. Let me explain how dismissal can be used in multiple contexts.

My first example is a felony shoplifting case where the police filed a complaint without it being screened by a prosecutor. If a person is charged with a felony the case must go to a grand jury within 10 days if the offender remains in custody. In this example if no grand jury could meet within the time line or the investigation was not completed within the time line, the case would be dismissed. Once the grand jury was to meet and decide to go forward with the case the matter can go all the way to conviction. In this example the shoplifter would be convicted, yet the case counted as a dismissal. A second example is a person charged with driving under the influence and refusal to take a breath test. In this instance the defendant, pursuant to a long standing statewide policy, would be allowed to plead to the DUI in exchange for a dismissal of the refusal. This would also count as a dismissal. A third example is of a person who cashes six non-sufficient fund checks. In a plea agreement the state might offer to dismiss three of the NSF checks in exchange for a plea to the remaining three checks, knowing the sentence will be the same whether it is for three or six checks. Some might consider this a 50% dismissal rate while others may view it as a 100% conviction rate. From these examples you can see that definition of terms is very important.

Approximately one a half years ago a complaint was made to the Governor's Office that the District Attorney's Office was not prosecuting domestic violence cases in Petersburg. Granted, "not prosecuting" was a vague term. However, I took this matter seriously and reviewed all DV cases filed for the preceding 12 months. There were eight cases. In all but two of these cases there was a conviction. I kept my notes of this case review. I am attaching them to this letter so you can check the facts yourself. I ask that you not make my notes public, because they sometimes use defendant or victim's names, but you can go to the court and review the files to see that six out of eight cases were prosecuted and convictions obtained.

Please note the two cases which were dismissed, #3 and #6. In case #3 you will see that the woman who was charged was likely the real victim. At arraignment she told the court that everything she said was a lie. In case #6 you will see that an adult son is charged with placing his mother in fear by "looming" over her. The mother wrote the court a letter asking that the case be dismissed. Then she told the Assistant District Attorney that she would not appear in court. The state dismissed the case rather than charge the mother with contempt of court. Both the dismissals appear appropriate to me. Dismissals are examples of what the district attorney's real job is – that is to do justice. If a dismissal is just, then the dismissal in that instance should be viewed as a good thing, not a bad thing. What was not appropriate, in my view, was the claim that the state did not prosecute DV cases.

I hope that we will be able to reach agreement on what is and is not appropriate. The court clerk's office is indicating a dismissal rate of about 17% to 18% for Petersburg. Our first review of the files shows a dismissal rate of between 18% and 23%, depending on how 13 cases which were never transmitted to the DA's office are counted. Using either of these figures, Petersburg appears to be at or below average for dismissal compared to other communities in the state. If we look at just the sample of DV cases I reviewed, the dismissal rate is 25%, two out of eight. I hope you would agree that the two cases dismissed were dismissed appropriately. If so, Petersburg is at or below average.

I look forward to our discussion. I will be arriving on the 2:45 pm flight on February 21st and will be ready to discuss these numbers with you at that time. I will also attend the town meeting. If you would like to discuss the matter before then, please feel free to contact me. I can be reached at the Department of Law in Juneau at 465-3600.

 

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