When Jason Williams felt threatened by three fellow students at David Douglas High School last November, he brought brass knuckles to school in an effort to ward off the bullies.
The school expelled Williams. His parents kicked him out of the house. But for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, that wasn’t enough. The DA’s office prosecuted Williams, 18, for menacing. The case went all the way to trial, but a judge threw the case out, ruling no reasonable person would find Williams guilty.
Williams’ attorney, Noah Horst, says the case should never have gone that far. “I don’t know that it’s up to the criminal justice system to lay punishment on punishment on disadvantaged kids,” Horst says.
It’s a particularly timely criticism now that the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is considering cuts to DA Mike Schrunk’s 2010-2011 budget. New county Chairman Jeff Cogen wants to cut $400,000 from Schrunk’s misdemeanor unit—though the DA’s overall proposed $25.7 million budget would grow from last year, mainly due to money from grants.
Schrunk—a veteran of such budget battles after 29 years in office—has warned he’d have to lay off seven of his 84 lawyers and stop prosecuting some misdemeanors like minor theft, harassment, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.
But some observers suggest, given the quality of some cases Schrunk’s staff pursues, that might not be such a huge loss.
“There are cases that raise the question whether this is the best use of public safety dollars,” says Lane Borg, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders in Portland.
Defense lawyers say the DA’s office pursues questionable misdemeanor cases that get thrown out or end in acquittal—often after thousands of dollars in public money is spent on prosecutors, public defenders and court staff.
Consider these other recent cases.
Last August, 40-year-old Jason Iverson suffered a grand mal seizure in a Southeast Portland apartment. When paramedics arrived, Iverson chased them out and hit a firefighter in the back with his belt buckle.
Iverson has prior drug and theft charges but no violent history. The DA’s office charged him with assaulting a public safety officer. A medical expert was prepared to testify Iverson’s agitation was likely caused by the seizure, but the DA’s office insisted on taking the case to trial. A jury agreed with the medical expert and acquitted Iverson.
After James Heidtbrink attacked a bicyclist on the Hawthorne Bridge last year, police loaded him into a patrol car while he babbled about Monopoly, the Green Bay Packers, Jerry Seinfeld and the Bionic Man. It was the sixth reported attack against bicyclists by Heidtbrink, who has a history of severe mental illness.
The fact Heidtbrink was clearly delusional didn’t stop the DA’s office from charging him with assault, reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. His attorney argued Heidtbrink’s outburst was due to mental illness—an easy argument given that a judge had had him committed to a hospital because of the incident.
Yet for nearly a year, the DA’s office pursued the case. A jury finally acquitted the 43-year-old homeless man on all counts Dec. 8, agreeing mental illness was responsible for his behavior.
The irony is that budget cuts in the past have improved Schrunk’s track record for dismissals.
Last year, the DA’s office lost five lawyers due to budget cuts. It prosecuted 800 fewer cases—a 3 percent drop. But the belt-tightening also led to fewer cases dismissed because the charges wouldn’t hold up in court. In 2009, the DA’s office had 26 percent of its cases dismissed, down from 34 percent in 2008.
Schrunk admits budget cuts have forced his office to conserve resources—choosing cases more judiciously and dropping more misdemeanors to violations. But he defends the cases his office has chosen to pursue, even the small ones.
And he disagrees with those who think his office occasionally wastes tax dollars prosecuting misdemeanors.
“I would defend misdemeanor prosecution,” he says. “They matter to the quality of the whole fabric of the community.”