Susan Melyssah Rios, Lassen County’s District Attorney, responded late last night to the Dec. 14 letters from the American Civil Liberties Union regarding issues with Lassen County, the Lassen County Superior Court, the Lassen County Public Defender’s Office and the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office that affect the legal services available to indigent individuals charged with a crime.
According to the ACLU, it sent a letter to Rios “regarding the breakdown in the provision of counsel to indigent people accused of crimes in Lassen County. Through California Public Records Act requests, we have obtained records that paint a disturbing picture of the state of indigent defense in Lassen (County).”
Due to the Tuesday, Dec. 14 power outage in Susanville, Rios said she had not had an opportunity to read the letter sent to the district attorney’s office when it arrived electronically late in the day, and she referred Lassen News to County Administrative Officer Richard Egan for comment. Lassen News published a story about the letter that included Egan’s comments.
Late in the evening Thursday, Dec. 17 Rios responded to Lassen News with an email regarding the ACLU letters that she characterized as a “the false narrative promulgated by a one-sided and ill-informed entity with a clear agenda.”
“An accused’s right to be represented during all stages of a criminal proceeding is a cornerstone of our justice system — without question,” Rios said. “But to suggest that our office halt filings because the public defenders’ office was/is in a state of dysfunction and turnover or because someone had COVID is absurd. We are already very cautious and judicious in the cases we file.”
And the district attorney said she will continue to file criminal complaints regardless of the situation in the public defender’s office and the contrary recommendation by the ACLU.
“I cannot and will not take a position to crime victims and our communities who have been ravaged by these ‘low level offenses’ that I cannot file a case because the public defender’s office is in a state of dissolution,” Rios said. “We are not San Francisco. Crime did not stop during the pandemic and it hasn’t stopped during the public defender office situation. The county and the court have been adequately handling the situation as needed.”
In fact, according to Rios, consistent and competent conflict attorneys have stepped up to the plate (during) the last two years to ensure the indigent in our county are given appropriate legal representation.
ACLU PRA request
The district attorney said she did receive a Public Records Act request from the ACLU, but the organization failed to ask for an explanation of the data, “and applied their own context to paint a picture very different than the actual situation. The fact of the matter is there is not one single unrepresented person in this county criminal system.
“Everyone who needs a lawyer gets one,” Rios said. “The issues in the public defender’s office were unfortunate, but I cannot control how any other department heads choose to manage their departments, and I can’t stop what I’m doing to accommodate for their issues — the same would certainly not be accommodated for my department.”
Rios concluded her email to Lassen News with, “Lastly, it’s not my job to find attorneys for the accused. So the ACLU can ‘urge the district attorney to solve the public defender office issues’ all they want — it’s not my wheelhouse.”
Appropriate criminal prosecutions
The ACLU called on Rios to “reassess the merits of the criminal prosecution of non-violent, low-level offenses that can be effectively diverted from the criminal legal system,” and alleged the district attorney was “prosecuting traffic violations that could be addressed by non-criminal enforcement … we strongly urge you to cease filing all such low-level cases, maximize the use of diversion and examine other areas where pre-filing diversion or dismissal of charges may be appropriate.”
Rios did not agree that opinion, and she said the ACLU did not have all the facts.
“The ACLU did not inquire in its PRA the number of cases rejected by our office, (or) the number (of cases) diverted,” Rios said. “They honed in on traffic offenses but failed to mention that our office attempts to resolve those matters, pre-filing as often as possible by allowing people to fix or correct the violations (they have been) cited for. The individuals do not respond or take advantage of that opportunity. We infract a lot of misdemeanor traffic violations for first offenders. The majority of our traffic violations filed (absent DUIs) are repeat offenders.”
Staffing in the district attorney and public defender offices
The ACLU also noted the difference in the funding and staffing between the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office.
According to the ACLU, Lassen County is failing to protect a citizen’s constitutional right to an effective defense, “a fundamental safeguard of liberty … This responsibility – to provide the effective assistance of counsel –reflects the far-reaching consequences of a criminal charge or conviction, which include not just incarceration and financial penalties, but also the possibility of immigration consequences, permanent barriers to employment and (the) loss of liberties such as the right to bear arms,” alleging, “Over the last year, the Lassen Public Defender’s office has effectively collapsed under the pressures of dwindling staff.”
Again, the ACLU may not have asked the right questions, sought complete answers or understood the differing responsibilities of the two offices.
“The two offices historically have been staffed as follows,” Rios said. “The public defender’s office has had three attorneys and two support staff. The district attorney’s office has had four attorneys and two or three support staff. The district attorney’s office handles 100 percent of the cases, the public offender has roughly two-thirds. The district attorney’s office serves other functions besides criminal prosecution that the public defender’s office does not.
“The ACLU failed to consider the amount of district attorney staff that is grant funded,” when comparing the two offices, Rios said. “Victim Witness advocates are not ‘investigators’ as the ACLU alleges. Our CAC employees are grant funded. I have two other employees who initially are paid out of general public safety (funds) but are reimbursed out of prison prosecution. The public defender’s office is not involved in prison prosecution, and therefore those staff members have no bearing on the public defender’s case load.”
And while the ACL called for parity in funding for the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office Rios said her office is not over funded.
“We are the fourth least funded district attorney’s office in the state,” Rios said. “By way of example, we can’t even afford to buy a generator to keep our lights on to perform our essential functions when the power goes out. Approximately two years ago we switched to as paperless as possible. We buy generic brand office supplies. We don’t have crime labs or the access to technology the larger counties have. Our attorney staff does as much web-based training as possible to complete our competency units as required by the State Bar.”
Trials in Lassen County
“The ACLU encourages the use of diversionary measures for low level offenses (felony and misdemeanor) but fails to recognize that small rural counties such as ours are not as well-resourced as larger areas and we do not have the same access to drug treatment or mental health,” Rios said. “Where should we divert these offenders to? The ACLU failed to recognize that in our county we are only provided one week per month to try cases, which naturally leads to a backlog of cases. The ACLU also failed to recognize that we have no court reporter at our superior court and felony matters are required to be reported. Absent consent from the parties to proceed with the audio recording system, many matters get continued several times until they land on a date when we have access to a court reporter. This is a court issue, not a district attorney issue. I have no control over whether or not a court reporter is present.”
Action by Lassen County Board of Supervisors regarding public defender’s office
Rios also noted the Lassen County Board o Supervisors plans to deal with the public defender’s office issues at its next meeting Tuesday, Dec. 21.
“I believe there is an item on the Dec. 21 agenda to approve a contract for indigent defense services,” Rios said.
With respect to the ACLU letter:
I believe there is an item on the 12/21 agenda to approve a contract for indigent defense services.
Lastly, it’s not my job to find attorneys for the accused. So the ACLU can “urge the DA to solve the PD office issues” all they want – it’s not my wheelhouse.
Please stop spreading the false narrative promulgated by a one-sided and ill-informed entity with a clear agenda. I know this publication to be better than that.