San Francisco’s controversial sentencing policies may end up getting caught in an unusual legal battle that pits Los Angeles county prosecutors against their new boss – former SF District Attorney George Gascon – over his newly adopted policies against pursuing cases under the state’s Three Strikes law.
That battle down south comes as San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is under fire for the release of a parolee now blamed for the hit and run deaths of two pedestrians on New Year’s Eve. The man had faced a possible life term, but the Three Strikes allegations were dropped last year after Boudin deemed such enhancements as unfairly promoting racial disparities.
A similar “Three Strikes” policy imposed just last month in Los Angeles, meanwhile, prompted prosecutors there to go to court last week to sue their own boss. They allege it is illegal for newly elected prosecutor George Gascon to issue what they consider a blanket rule that bars them from seeking sentencing enhancements under the Three Strikes law.
“Everyone is very distraught,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles county representing some 800 line prosecutors.
She says the lawyers are conflicted between what they see as their legal obligation to file enhancements on behalf of victims and being forced to comply with the ban ordered by Gascon, which they contend could put their law license at risk.
“What we like to accomplish with this lawsuit is get our attorneys in our office out of this damned if you do, damned if you don’t position,” Hanisee said Monday. “We’re hoping for the judicial branch to intervene and give our attorneys some guidance.”
The hope is that the courts will clarify whether prosecutors can safely ignore any legal risk inherent in complying with the ban. The other option, she says, is to declare blanket limits on sentencing enhancements unlawful.
In Boudin’s sentencing policy memo issued last February, he touted his new restrictions against enhancements as preventing “over-incarceration, racial disparities and disproportionate punishments.” A month later, prosecutors moved to drop Three Strikes allegations in the pending robbery case of Troy McAlister, who had been in custody since 2015. Gascon was top prosecutor at the time the Three Strikes allegations were lodged in 2018.
McAlister was soon freed due to Boudin’s change in policy, given credit for time served instead of a life prison term based on his 25-year history of prior crimes, including strike offenses that involved robbery and carjacking.
McAlister had repeated run-ins with law enforcement since his release, but none led to charges. His most recent crime, prosecutors said, came after he met a woman through a dating App at a Daly City restaurant. He drove off in her car when she went in to get the food, prosecutors say. That was on December 29. Two days later, prosecutors say he ran a red light and struck and killed pedestrians Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt.
He faces two counts of hit and run vehicular manslaughter, but court records indicate prosecutors have not sought to charge him based on his prior criminal history under the Three Strikes law.
San Francisco’s public defender, Mano Raju, said “astronomical” sentencing enhancements can skew the legal process against defendants and hinder justice in the process.
“When the focus goes away from the individual who is currently charged and the conduct that is currently charged, we often get a result that is distorted,’’ Raju said. “And not helpful to either society or public safety.”
While there will likely be no immediate impact from any ruling in the Los Angeles case, Hanisee and legal experts agree that an ultimate appellate ruling would set a precedent for San Francisco and the rest of the state.