PALMDALE — Frustrated with the policies of Los Angeles County District Attorney Gascón, the Palmdale City Council is investigating filing criminal charges in some misdemeanor cases itself through the city attorney, and is considering a vote of no confidence in Gascón.
Gascón was elected in November and immediately set in motion sweeping criminal justice reforms, including a halt to seeking harsher sentences through special enhancements and the elimination of cash bail for any misdemeanor.
Additionally, he directed deputy district attorneys to reject filing 13 types of charges, with some exceptions, including items such as trespassing, driving without a valid or a suspended license, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, criminal threats, public intoxication, minor in possession of alcohol, loitering, drug possession and under the influence of control substances, according to City Attorney Christopher Beck.
Beck reported Tuesday that through May this year, the District Attorney’s office has rejected 1,208 cases for filing, a rate of 59%. This compares to the previous two years, prior to Gascón’s election, in which the office rejected 13% and 21%, respectively.
“It is just astonishing to me that we’ve reached this point,” Councilmember Richard Loa said. “All of those are offenses that affect human beings and affect our residents.”
Gascón faces a recall effort and public pushback from many of the deputy district attorneys.
At least 22 cities, including Lancaster, have approved votes of no confidence in the District Attorney, with others considering it.
The Council heard during Tuesday’s meeting from Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, who worked in the Antelope Valley for more than 10 years and has prosecuted high-profile child death cases such as Gabriel Fernandez. Hatami has been quite open about his disagreement with Gascón’s policies.
“The Gabriel Fernandez case and the case of Steve Owen wouldn’t have ended up the way they did if George Gascón was in charge,” Hatami said. “I think you really need to think about that. We are not allowed to file special circumstances on any case going forward.”
Eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez died in May 2013 after being abused by his mother and her boyfriend. His mother pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, with the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture.
Her boyfriend was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen was shot and killed by a parolee while investigating a burglary in Lancaster in 2016.
Trenton Trevon Lovell, 31, of Lancaster, was sentenced to life without parole last month for Owen’s murder, following his guilty plea to first-degree murder. The charge included the special circumstance for killing a law peace officer.
Without the special circumstances allegations in those cases, someone who kills a law enforcement officer, or tortures a child, or shoots children at a school, would not face a sentence of life in prison,
While stating he agrees criminal justice system reform is needed, Hatami argued that Gascón’s methods do not follow the law and put public safety at risk.
“Blanket polices do not serve the public,” he said.
The refusal to file charges also denies those accused of the opportunities for rehabilitation through diversion programs, which may include drug treatment and other resources for help. Without such help, they may repeatedly offend.
“There needs to be punishment and there also needs to be public safety. There also needs to be empathy for others, too, and there needs to be reforms,” Hatami said.
Crime has dramatically increased in Los Angeles County, all while “thousands of cases that have not been filed as a result of George Gascón’s policies,” he said.
Owen’s widow, Tania Owen, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective, also encouraged the Council to approve a vote of no confidence in Gascón.
“I am tired of people thinking that these criminals are victims,” she said. “They are not victims; they are criminals. Everything that they have done … is because of their choices.”
She recounted in detail her husband’s death, the execution-style shooting with a stolen gun by a third-strike parolee who was running from a burglary and who proceeded to attempt to run over another deputy and then took two teens hostage in another home.
Prosecutors were debating whether to seek the death penalty in Owen’s death when Gascón was elected, and he directed the death penalty was no longer an option in any case.
“The murderer had more compassion for my family than Mr. Gascón,” by taking the plea deal without going to trial, Owen said.
Hatami noted that, without penalties in misdemeanor cases such as trespassing or resisting arrest, “anybody can go into a store and harass patrons” without fear of repercussions.
“We’re facing a real problem with repetitive criminal activities,” Mayor Steve Hofbauer said. “I think we owe it to our community that cases are handled fairly and handled equitably.”
The City Council, on a 5-0 vote, directed Beck to present a preliminary proposal at the next meeting for what would be needed in order for the city attorney’s office to begin filing misdemeanor cases on its own. Council members agreed a larger feasibility study and an outside consultant may be required to determine costs and how to fund such an endeavor.
The Council also agreed to consider a vote of no confidence in Gascón at a future meeting. Carrillo was the lone dissenting vote.
He argued a resolution with a vote of no confidence does not produce any real change; it only offers moral support for those who oppose Gascón’s policies.
“If my spouse or child was murdered, a vote of no confidence would not mean anything,” he said.
Carrillo said the increase in crime may be attributed to a number of factors, not just the District Attorney’s policies, as it is increasing nationwide. He added he does see a need to look at the matter from the other side, that reforms are needed.
He said Gascón should be pressured to meet with the Council and the public and to explain and debate his policies.