Minor infractions face big changes

A motion filed by the District Attorney’s Office could change the way so-called quality of life infractions by people on the street, such as aggressive panhandling and sleeping in doorways, are dealt with in court.

For years, the court has dismissed hundreds of these types of citations on a procedural basis, according to law enforcement officials. In many cases, lawyers appearing pro bono for the homeless have argued cases, oftentimes without the defendant appearing, on the basis that they’re without merit.

Assistant District Attorney Paul Henderson said only the prosecution should be able to have a case thrown out without a specific reason, such as it being unconstitutional or against somebody’s civil rights.

Additionally, the courts have a practice of automatically tossing citations when the issuing officer fails to respond with a short report, said Henderson, who argued that court clerks are taking an extra step in collecting evidence when that’s the prosecution’s job.

“The argument is, the citation itself serves as the charging document,” Henderson said.

But homeless advocates said prosecutors are trying to lower the burden of proof. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights represents low-income clients, including the homeless. Attorney Elisa Della-Piana wrote a brief opposing the District Attorney’s Office’s attempt to lower the burden of evidence.

“What we’resaying is that what local law and state law requires is that the prosecution proves its case,” Della-Piana said. “All that’s required is a short paragraph to explain what happened.”

Superior Court commissioners may rule on the motions as soon as today, when four “quality of life” cases go before traffic department. A spokeswoman for the court, Ann Donlan, said she was unable to comment on the pending decision, but said the court is focused on “credible admissible evidence.”

bbegin@examiner.com

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