Women's Justice Center, Centro de Justicia Para Mujeres
Home, Pagina Principal, About, Sobre Nosotras, Funding, financiamient
What's New What's New, Que Hay de Nuevo
Help. Ayuda
The Maria Teresa Macias Case, El Caso de Maria Teresa Macias
Criminal Justice, Justicia Criminal
Women in Policing, Mujeres Policia
Guest Book, Lobro de Vistantes
Workshops / Talleres
jContact Us, Contactanos



Criminal Justice

Back to Criminal Justice Index

Recommendations for Improving District Attorney Response to Violence Against Women and Children ~ March 15, 2002

The following recommendations for improving District Attorney response to violence against women and children address specific problems we have encountered in Sonoma County. However, these problems are commonplace in District Attorney offices everywhere. We hope that by making our set of recommendations available to you, you'll be able to adapt them to use in your own community. Or, that they will spark your own ideas of the specific changes that can be made. As much as possible we have framed the recommendations in a way that makes it easier to measure and monitor results.

There is one underlying problem that women everywhere have with their district attorney that our recommendations don't address. The problem is this: all district attorneys have absolute discretion to reject cases for prosecution whenever they want, without having to explain why, and no matter how much evidence there is to support the case. Put another way, district attorneys have no legal obligation to file charges on any case, and victims have no legal means to hold the district attorney accountable for refusing to file. This absolute discretion of district attorneys to dump cases arbitrarily generally harms women and children most of all. The fact that women come to the criminal justice system primarily as victims, and the fact that violence against women cases are generally a district attorneys least favorite cases, leads to wholesale dumping of viable violence against women cases at most district attorney's offices.

Until there are legislated checks on DA powers to dump cases at will, it is essential that women and their advocates stay constantly vigilant and activist on DA handling of all rape, domestic violence, and child abuse cases.

In Sonoma County: For the last eight years behind rhetoric of concern about violence against women, the reality of District Attorney Mike Mullins' reign has been marked by arbitrary dumping of rape and domestic violence cases, unchecked violations of women's rights, a facade of law enforcement programs designed more to fool the public than to serve victims, and sharp retaliation against any who dared to protest.

On March 5th election day, Sonoma County ousted incumbent Mike Mullins from office. By a margin of 58 to 43 percent voters gave a stunning rejection to Mullins' abuses of power and an unambiguous mandate for sweeping law enforcement change. But ousting the county's chief law enforcement officer is just the first step.

The following are the changes we feel are most urgently needed in the DA's office to assure justice and safety for the women and children of Sonoma County. We urge you to get involved now!

Recommendations for
Change! Change! Change!

Your Immediate Participation

Given this year's election timing, it will be nine months before DA elect Stephen Passalaqua will take office on January 2003. The extended lame duck period is awkward, but it does present a unique opportunity for the community to work with Passalaqua before he's barraged by the demands of office.

We're impressed with the way Passalaqua ran his campaign. We believe he'll be more open to public input than any DA of recent history, and that he'll be especially open to the needs of the Latino community. Among a number of promises affecting the Latino community, Passalaqua, who himself is bilingual, vowed that his first act of office will be to put a fully bilingual staff person at the front desk.

So shake off the despair that we could never change the way law enforcement works in this county. Join with others, and commit to a piece of the work.

Double the number of deputy DA's assigned to violence against women and children cases

Law enforcement effort given to violence against women in any county is directly proportional to the number of deputy DA's (sometimes called assistant DA's) assigned to these cases. This is so because all police cases generated in the county funnel up into the district attorney's office and because each deputy DA can only handle a given number of cases. If too few deputy DA's are assigned to a given crime category, the overflow of cases will inevitably be vulnerable to rejection - no matter how strong the evidence.

At present there are a total of 47 deputy DA's (DDA's) in Sonoma County. Only 3 DDA's are currently assigned to the rape/domestic violence felony prosecution team. (That's one less than before Teresa Macias was murdered by her husband in 1996.) In addition, there is currently only one DDA assigned to misdemeanor domestic violence court.

Given that at least a quarter of police calls are domestic violence related, assigning only 4 out of 47 DDA's to cover both domestic violence and rape creates an immense pressure to reject a high volume of these cases no matter how strong the evidence that the crimes have occurred. This intentional bottleneck at the top not only outright blocks women's equal access to justice, it also discourages even the most diligent police from putting time and effort into these cases. After all, how much effort do you give to a restraining order violation if you know ahead of time the DA is going to reject it?

  • Doubling the number of DDA's assigned to violence against women -and for the same reasons doubling the number of DDA's assigned to child abuse- will automatically double law enforcement effort and interest in these cases county-wide.
  • Grant writing to support these positions must be ongoing and treated seriously. Grant writing effort must be publicly reported.
  • Even if the grants are not immediately available, DDA's must be transferred from other crimes. Equal justice can no longer be denied to crimes of violence against women and children in Sonoma County.

Open Access and Communication

Communicating with the DA's office has been consistently frustrating for both professionals and victims, and virtually impossible for persons who don't speak English.

  • There should be at least three persons assigned to the front desk and incoming phones (there are currently only two.) At least one must be fully Spanish bilingual.
  • Front desk persons should be given ongoing training in the criminal justice process and in the criminal justice computer system.
  • All front desk persons, in fact all staff at the DA's office, should be connected to, and trained in the use of, the Language Line in the same way as 911 operators. (The Language Line is a national telephone bank of professional interpreters in over 100 languages available 24 hours a day.)
  • Prosecutors must communicate with crime victims in a timely, respectful, honest, and supportive manner. The mean-spiritedness of the Mullins' years has taken a terrible toll on everyone in the office, but it is victims who have been hurt most of all. At the same time that Passalaqua must find a way to lift the moral inside the office, he must also establish a fair system of discipline that responds swiftly to victim complaints. This system for responding to victims' complaints should be codified and put together before January.

Recruit and Hire Minority Race Deputy DA's

Sonoma County has not had even one deputy DA in the last ten years who is a racial minority. An all-white DA's office with 47 white deputy DA's is inexcusable. It is an injustice by itself, and it inevitably leads to greater injustices. Passalaqua must prioritize recruiting and hiring of minority race deputies. A formal mechanism should be created for citizen participation in this process.

Complaint Review Forms Must be Intelligible,
Substantive, Truthful, and Open to Public Inspection

When the DA's office rejects a case, the deputy DA assigned to the case fills out a one page "Complaint Review Form" supposedly giving the legal rational for the rejection. This form is then sent back to the police along with the corresponding rejected police crime report.

The way these forms are currently filled out is a mockery. Most prosecutors just arbitrarily check off a box that says, "insufficient evidence", "no corroboration", or "in the interests of justice". Rarely does the box checked or the added phrase or two of explanation bear any relationship to the true merits or faults of the case.

Given the absolute powers of the DA to reject cases at will,

  • The DA must require his deputies to provide intelligible, thorough, and honest explanations when filling out complaint review forms. These explanations should provide relevant and instructive information for police on the legal points necessary for successful prosecutions and should also serve to properly inform victims of why their case cannot be filed.
  • Complaint review forms must be open to public inspection. Personal or confidential information can be redacted as is done with any other public record document.

Completely Restructure Domestic Violence Court

Created in the wake of public outrage over the murder of Teresa Macias, domestic violence court has been one of the biggest PR scams of the Mullins' era. From the beginning, only misdemeanor domestic violence cases have been heard in dv court. But the most detrimental slight of hand comes out of the fact that the moment a defendant pleads "not guilty" in dv court that defendant's case is immediately transferred out of dv court into another court. Once in another court, the case is then in the hands of a junior deputy DA and of a new judge whose attitude, not surprisingly, is that these cases should be handled in dv court. As often as not, the domestic violence case the DA publicly boasts of taking so seriously, is then simply dismissed. Defense attorneys early on saw the scam and, of course, tell their clients to plead "not guilty' as their best pass for walking out the door.

In other words, the highly tauted dv court doesn't really prosecute domestic violence cases. In reality, it serves as little more as a probationary baby-sitter for those misdemeanor defendants who are willing to plead guilty. It has been commonplace for the door to dv court to be locked for the day by as early as 11am. This has all been an intentional part of the plan to suppress dv cases while fooling the public. The severe injury this scheme has caused women in the county is incalculable.

  • DV court must be restructured from top to bottom. In particular dv court must take on the criminal prosecution of domestic violence cases when the defendant pleads "not guilty'.

The Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs
Association Meetings Must be on the Public Record

Wide-ranging local law enforcement policies are forged at the monthly meetings of the police chiefs, the DA, and the probation chief. Whatever loophole the DA and chiefs have used to justify holding these meetings behind closed doors is irrelevant. We live in a democracy and public business must be conducted on the public record.

Law enforcement chiefs around the county should listen hard to the voter's March 5th message. People are fed up in a very big way with the arrogant, unilateral, and abusive law enforcement practices of this county. The fact that so many in law enforcement were certain that Mullins would win is proof of just how out of touch law enforcement really is with public outrage at law enforcement misconduct. Coming out of hiding and into the daylight is a necessary first step in restoring public trust.

If at one point or another the Chiefs' Association must deal with personnel or other justifiably sensitive issues, then, of course, these issues can be heard in special session off the record, just as is done by any other public body. But first the case must be made for taking the issue off the record. Apart from those occasional instances, the Chiefs' Association meetings must be fully recorded on the public record.

Compile Complete Statistics on Violence Against Women and Obey Public Information Law

Not only has the DA's office been contemptuous of public record law, but when certain statistics have shed bad light on the office, Mullins has simply ceased to compile those particular statistics.

  • The DA's office must keep statistics which break out the number of felony and misdemeanor convictions obtained in domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse cases.
  • Those statistics must be provided to the public in full compliance with public record law.

Victim Advocates Must Be Completely Independent
of Law Enforcement Control

The last eight years have seen an enormous increase in federal Violence Against Women Act moneys going to battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers. A serious downside of this money is that California (and a number of other states) requires victim service agencies to obtain the signatures of the DA and all local police chiefs on their annual grant renewal requests. This gives the DA and law enforcement absolute veto power over the primary funding for victim advocates. In Sonoma County, by threatening refusals or by actual refusal to sign, Mullins and other law enforcement chiefs have all but crushed effective victim advocacy in Sonoma County.

It's a gross conflict of interest to have victim advocates financially dependent on DA and police approval. The ultimate solution to this problem lies in changing the state policies for allocating the federal violence against women funds. But in the interim it is vital to women's lives in Sonoma County that we insist the DA and other law enforcement chiefs cease all threats and conditions for signing victim services grant renewal requests.

Deputy DA's Must Be Adequately Trained on Rape, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse Prosecution

Before beginning an assignment on the violence against women or child abuse team, deputies must be given intensive training in the prosecution of these cases. Currently they receive no such training. The curriculum must be available to the public. We recommend ex-deputy DA Donna Ryan be hired to implement and supervise prosecutor training on violence against women and children cases.

Accountability and Discipline

When news broke that deputy DA Brooke Halsey was involved in six months of crafting perjured testimony on the Pelfini domestic violence homicide case, the community was shocked. However, those who work in tandem with the DA's office were not surprised at all. In fact, in the years leading up to this event, a full range of professionals - police, advocates, victims, and other prosecutors - had been complaining to DA Mullins about Halsey's career of misconduct. Mullins' unwillingness to discipline Halsey at any point led directly to the extreme of abuses in Pelfini.

Most of the recommendations we lay out aim at establishing one form or another of DA accountability and discipline in the office. What we emphasize here is that all such systems must be codified and open to public review.

DA Investigators Must Work for a Living

The DA's office employs a division of sworn, highly paid investigators whose written job description is to fill in investigative tasks needed on cases being charged by the office. The reality in Sonoma County is that this is a plum job for cops who want to get out of doing a day's work. Although a few work of their own accord, too many do not and are never castigated. Even high level prosecutors in charge of high profile cases cannot get many of these investigators to work. And when assigned to rape and domestic violence, all too many of these investigators are the primary culprits in berating, intimidating, and mistreating victims in the hope the victims will just go away.

  • Time/work studies must be done on all DA investigators.

Establish Civilian Review of the District Attorney

In order for women and children ever to obtain equal justice and protection from the criminal justice system it is essential to create legislated checks on the DA's absolute power and discretion to reject cases at will. For many reasons we discuss elsewhere, until these legal checks exist DA's will continue to disproportionately and wholesale dump violence against women and children cases as the primary buffer on holding down the overall office workload. The only interim solution is for communities themselves to establish formal civilian oversight of the DA's handling of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse cases.

Two thirds of Sonoma county residents favor civilian review of police, but civilian review of the DA is even more important since the DA's sits at the apex of the criminal justice system. The DA's decisions about which cases to prioritize directly controls police decisions. It's human nature. It will be impossible to motivate police to handle these cases properly if the DA won't file on the work.

The Press Democrat must stop covering up
District Attorney abuses

The press should function as the most significant civilian oversight in any community. Yet for eight years of Mullins' reign the Press Democrat has gone out of its way to protect Mullins and keep documented evidence of Mullin's abuses from the public. The Press Democrat must examine the role of its lapdog journalism in permitting DA abuses and the mutinous atmosphere in the DA's office to reach the disastrous extremes that it did.

The Benefits of a just and fair criminal justice system will be felt in every corner of our community

In order for the good and talented people in law enforcement to prevail, it's ultimately the community that must set the stage. The election of Stephen Passalaqua was a monumental first step.

Don't stop now. Get involved today!

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


All rights reserved © 2010 by Woman's Justice Center
Web site by S. Henry Wild