Deputy District Attorneys Sue L.A.'s Top Prosecutor Over 'Radical' New Rules

Gascón ban on 'three strikes' charges and gang enhancements breaks state law, deputies say

George Gascón
George Gascón / Facebook
January 5, 2021

The union representing Los Angeles's deputy district attorneys is suing their boss, progressive prosecutor George Gascón, seeking to overturn orders that would constrain the charging of serious offenders in a way it says violates state law.

In a lawsuit filed last week, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County charged that several of Gascón's "special directives," implemented after he unseated the city's first black D.A. in a closely fought race last year, were "not merely radical, but plainly unlawful." The rules implement a blanket ban on charging offenders with certain sentencing enhancements, including California's "three strikes" law, which requires a life sentence for third felony offenses.

Gascón's implementation of these and other directives are part of a sweeping overhaul he promised in the course of the 2020 race. But some of the rules run afoul of the explicit will of the California state legislature, Los Angeles ADDA vice president Eric Siddall told the Washington Free Beacon, and in so doing exceed even Gascón's wide prosecutorial discretion.

"We're being told, 'Do you follow the orders of one man, or do you follow the law?'" Siddall said. "And what we're asking the court to do is give clarity: What should we be doing, following the dictates of one individual, or should we be following the law that was created by the people of the state of California and the state legislature and has been thoroughly vetted by the courts for the past few decades?"

The suit, which pits Los Angeles's top prosecutor against his employees, signals a deep discontent among the rank-and-file with Gascón's reformist agenda. That conflict may replicate in the offices of "progressive prosecutors" across the country, challenging their project of overhauling the criminal justice system from the municipal level up.

The conflict dates back to early December, when Gascón, newly installed as Los Angeles County D.A., issued a wave of changes to his office's charging policies. These included many top priorities of the criminal justice "reform" movement, including a curbing of cash bail, the waiving of prosecution for misdemeanors like disturbing the peace and drug possession, and a de facto end to charges that carry a death sentence.

Among the changes were requirements that deputy D.A.s ignore certain sentencing enhancements, including the three-strikes law, gang enhancements, and special circumstances enhancements that could lead to a sentence of life without parole. It's these changes that the ADDA is challenging, saying that they illegally override state law by imposing a blanket ban where prosecutors are statutorily required to exercise their discretion.

Gascón, whose office did not return a request for comment, has argued that some of these provisions not only contravene his progressive views but are unconstitutional. But this, the ADDA says in its suit, is "legally irrelevant" as it is beyond Gascón's power as district attorney to make such broad-based exclusions.

That was the view taken also by Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which cheered the ADDA's lawsuit.

"We commend the action of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys to protect the public from these harmful and misguided directives to the extent possible," Scheidegger said. "While the district attorney does have broad discretion in charging, Mr. Gascón's directives go far beyond the limits of his office."

The ADDA suit will now proceed through the California legal system. Its success or failure will likely be read as a bellwether for the feasibility of the progressive prosecutor project more generally.

Such prosecutors have been ensconced in district attorneys' offices across the country, from Philadelphia's Larry Krasner to San Francisco's Chesa Boudin, the latter having succeeded Gascón in that office. Both men have conflicted with others in law enforcement and prosecution, including an ongoing feud between Krasner and U.S. attorney William McSwain, and criticism of Boudin from police for a New Year's Eve hit-and-run they say was the fault of his failure to file previous criminal charges against the driver.

Published under: Los Angeles