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Criminal Justice

DA Gascón Must Follow California’s Three-Strikes Law For Sentencing Enhancements, Appeals Court Rules

A portrait of Gascon in mid-speech from the shoulders up.
Los Angeles County DA George Gascón.
(Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images)
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A California appeals court has upheld a lower court’s injunction that blocks L.A. District Attorney George Gascón from ordering prosecutors not to pursue certain sentencing enhancements.

Gascón enacted a series of directives when he assumed office, including one that ordered deputy D.A.'s not to pursue sentence enhancements, which can add years to incarceration, based on prior convictions.

That restriction on “three-strike” enhancements led to a lawsuit brought by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the union that represents Gascón’s prosecutors. The union argued that a D.A. cannot dismiss hundreds of enhancements all at once.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled in a preliminary injunction last year that Gascón’s ban was illegal.

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Laurie Levenson, criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in L.A. and former federal prosecutor, said the ruling means that the blanket directive was “unlawful” under the California statutory scheme.

“Practically, it means that … the statutory scheme envisions that those are going to get pled in the case, and that you can argue for dismissal,” Levenson said on our newsroom's public affairs show, AirTalk. “There's discretion with what the judges will do.”

The ruling also came with a companion decision. Gascón’s office tried to argue that there should be “unlimited discretion for prosecutors in deciding what to charge and what to dismiss,” Levenson said. But the court disagreed.

“The same panel of judges pushed back on that and said, ‘not in our statutory scheme,’” Levenson said. “He can't issue a directive to tell his [deputy attorneys] to tell the judge to issue a dismissal and the judge must do so.”

To remove sentencing enhancements going forward, Gascón must follow statutory requirements. The D.A.’s office will have to argue how enhancements aren’t good for rehabilitation individually. And a judge will ultimately decide.

“Today’s ruling maintains the District Attorney’s discretion and authority as an elected constitutional officer,” Gascón’s office said in a statement. “The court affirmed his ability to pursue his policy goals in the furtherance of justice.”

Eric Siddall, vice president of the prosecutors' union, hailed the court’s decision.

“Gascón’s authority is not absolute,” Siddall said on Twitter. “He must follow the rules. While we are heartened by the Court’s ruling, we continue to be disappointed that L.A.’s chief prosecutor forced us to take him to court to stop him from breaking the law.”

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