San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield announced Tuesday that he no longer plans to charge people accused of some minor drug offenses, citing a desire to spend the dwindling days of his tenure focusing on more serious violations.
Local law enforcement officials say, however, that the new policy won't affect how their departments enforce the law.
"The so-called 'War on Drugs' is an absolute and utter failure," Sarsfield said. "These are such unimportant crimes and we don't have the resources to prosecute them."
The district attorney announced a "moratorium" on charging any crime in cases where a person is accused of being drunk in public, under the influence of drugs or in possession of less than one once of marijuana. Driving under the influence charges will still be prosecuted, he said.
The recently registered Libertarian said he plans to focus on serious crimes for the remainder of his term as district attorney. Sarsfield, who has six months left in office following his failed re-election bid in June, recently turned over the criminal caseload of the district attorney's office to district attorney-elect Candice Hooper Mancino, but said he plans to continue making decisions about how cases are charged.
Sarsfield said his long-held libertarian views played a role in his decision. The Libertarian party stands on a platform of less government and more freedom. The party also advocates for the end of drug prohibition, according to its Web site.
In addition to libertarianism and a desire to focus on more serious crime, Sarsfield cited budget constraints as another reason to stop prosecuting minor drug violations. He said his office is still suffering from a $91,000 budget overrun in March that came after the prosecutor spent more than $115,000 paying an outside attorney to prosecute three civil rights cases.
Sarsfield blames his financial situation on the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, which denied his request for an $80,000 budget augmentation in the wake of the March overruns.
"For the next six and a half months, this will be the policy," he said. "(Hooper Mancino) can change it if she chooses after that."
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said the board's decision not to augment Sarsfield's budget was based on the prosecutor's track record of mismanaging his resources. Botelho said Sarsfield was "trying to pass the blame" for his financial situation.
Hooper Mancino was elected district attorney by a wide-margin in the June primary election, but won't take office until January.
Local law enforcement officials say that Sarsfield's new soft-on-drugs policy won't affect who they arrest and why they arrest them. One criticized the policy, saying that it will benefit gangs that deal drugs.
San Benito County Sheriff Curtis Hill was frustrated by the policy, but said his deputies will continue to enforce the law and take people to jail for violating the law.
"(Sarsfield) just legalized drugs in San Benito County; that's his choice," Hill said. "The job of the Sheriff's Office is to enforce the law and that's what we'll do."
Hill said he used to joke about people who believe that prosecuting drug users isn't necessary by telling them that next time he arrested someone who was high on drugs or drunk in public, he would bring the suspect to that person's home and say "you deal with it." Drug users, particularly methamphetamine users, fuel local gang economies and keep them in business by buying and using drugs, he added.
"A crime is a crime," Hill said. "Not prosecuting people for being under the influence is letting the drug dealers win - now they've got an open market."
Sarsfield said, however, he isn't giving drug users a green light to do as they please.
"DUI cases will still be prosecuted vigorously, I'm talking about someone sitting in their home under the influence of narcotics. The latter will not be charged," he said. "We have to cut something, and I think property crimes and violent crimes are much more serious than someone smoking a joint."
Hollister Police Chief Jeff Miller said Sarsfield's new policy won't affect the police department.
"Those who violate the law will be warned, cited, or arrested depending on the officer's professional discretion," he said. "We will continue to enforce the laws that are on the books."
Miller also said Sarsfield's policy shouldn't be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card in light of the fact that Hooper Mancino could change the policy after taking office. Hooper Mancino couldn't be reached for comment on whether she would change the policy by press time on Tuesday.
"There is a one-year statute of limitations on these crimes," Miller said. "That means the district attorney's office has one year to file charges on these cases."
Botelho seemed shocked by Sarsfield's new policy and said he his counting down the days until the district attorney-elect takes the reins of the prosecutor's office.
"The sooner that Candice is running the show, the better," Botelho said after hearing about the new drug policy. "It's a shame that someone in (Sarsfield's) position would choose not to uphold the law."
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