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Los Angeles County prosecutors file lawsuit against new district attorney over justice reform efforts

"The directives violate California law," the union representing deputy district attorneys said about an order to abandon many sentencing enhancements.
Image: George Gascon
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón is being sued by the union representing prosecutors over his directive to stop seeking some sentencing enhancements.Damian Dovarganes / AP file

The union representing Los Angeles County prosecutors has sued their boss, newly elected District Attorney George Gascón, over his attempt to impose justice reforms.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Wednesday aims to gut Gascón's platform by proposing to end his mandate to stop seeking prior felony conviction enhancements — including for gun possession, gang membership and violating the "three strikes" law — that lengthen sentences when suspects are convicted.

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County argues in the lawsuit that deputy district attorneys cannot follow the directives without violating state penal code.

"The directives violate California law, which imposes a mandatory duty on prosecutors to plead and prove strike priors," the union said in a statement. "Dismissals of those priors can only be based on individual circumstances, not a blanket policy."

Gascón said Los Angeles County voters "embraced" the effort when they elected him.

"This new approach will take some fine-tuning and a tolerance for change," he said in a statement. "I invite open and respectful debate based on the facts. ... However, the people have spoken, the direction is clear and, in the end, we all want the same things – safety and equal justice under the law."

Gascón, a former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief and San Francisco district attorney, was elected in November after he ran as a reformer and police critic who decried incumbent Jackie Lacey's hands-off record on prosecuting officers who kill suspects.

In the wake of national protests after George Floyd's death, Gascón's win was celebrated by activists who supported his kinder approach to law enforcement.

But the union, which endorsed the straitlaced Lacey, immediately clashed with Gascón, arguing his softer prosecution policy would lead to an increase in crime.

"Respondent George Gascón, within weeks of his investiture as Los Angeles County’s District Attorney, has issued Special Directives that are not merely radical, but plainly unlawful," the union said in the suit.

State law "mandates" the use of appropriate enhancements, the lawsuit said, and prosecutors cannot be "commanded" to violate it. The union claims in the lawsuit that Gascón has dispatched "agents to monitor prosecutors at their hearings to ensure that they abide" by his directive.

The filing seeks to force Gascón to rescind his directive.

He responded to the union's initial criticism by walking back parts of his mandate: Enhancements can be sought for hate crimes, crimes against children and older people and other allegations that meet his criteria, he said in mid-December.

But Gascón stood his ground on the core of his reform policy, saying gang enhancements and other add-ons don't reduce recidivism or crime. He said there were more than 100 enhancement possibilities available to prosecutors under California law.

"Over-incarceration — the practice of sending people to jails and prisons for too long — does not enhance safety," he said in a statement.