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San Diego

Who Is Paris Hilton To Us?
by Larry Stirling 6/25/07

Did Paris Hilton get special treatment because of her celebrity status?

She was treated more harshly than tens of thousands of others who are arrested for their second DUI while still on probation for a prior conviction.

Does the sorry specter of a saucy, famous-for-being-famous tabloid personality being bounced back and forth between courts and jails hold any lessons for the rest of us?


Larry Stirling
Larry Stirling is a retired judge who authored the book "Leading at a Higher Level." He is a former Army officer, member of the San Diego City Council, the California State Assembly and the State Senate. [go to Stirling index]

Her treatment highlighted substantial problems extant between the executive and judicial branches.

I know, I know, everyone is happy to see the snitty vixen get an overdue lesson in the realities of life.

We don't like drunk drivers on our streets. We especially don't like unrepentant ones who repeat their destructive conduct threatening all of our lives.

Ms. Hilton's insouciance aside, her situation directed a searing spotlight into one of the many fissures of the so-called criminal justice system.

Had she been anyone else, her case would have likely ended up as one of the millions of misdemeanor arrest warrants issued by the courts that remain unserved throughout the nation.

Vehicle Code 23152 allows the equivalent of two weekends in jail for a second DUI.

The 45-day mandatory jail sentence Ms. Hilton garnered is not standard punishment. It ought to be, but it is not.

There are several major problems with our system.

The first is that most crime, including DUI and domestic violence, is committed during the late evenings and on weekends. Most of the police personnel and nearly all of the police command staff work 8-to-5 weekdays. More comfy.

The jail systems are substantially underbuilt here and in Los Angeles. That leaves sheriffs scrambling to dump anyone out of the system they can politically get away with. In the case of Ms. Hilton, Sheriff Baca just didn't get away with it.

Why are the jails under built? The jail system is the direct responsibility of the county board of supervisors. There would be little problem getting voter approval for jail construction bonds. Voters simply have not been asked.

And why, given that San Diego County is short of jail beds, did our county board rent out their main downtown jail to the federal government? Profit over public safety?

Why has the sheriff not asked the board for adequate jail space?

I cannot forget one of the days I was presiding in the downtown felony-arraignment department. Bail setting is an inherent step in the arraignment process.

One defendant had a long, violent record and deserved a very high bail. He was in court this time because he had failed to appear for arraignment after being "released on his own recognizance" by some nitwit judge.

Perusing the file to find exactly which nitwit judge had granted him the ROR, I found the name stamp for one "Lawrence W. Stirling."

I was incredulous that, given this guy's rap sheet, that I could be so foolish.

As a legislator, I carried the bill requiring judges to consider first and foremost the defendant's danger to the community in setting bail.

It turns out, I had not granted the ROR.

What I found was that the local criminal justice system had adopted a self-serving device to make things easy on itself.

As judges rotated into the felony arraignment department, a copy of their signature stamps was automatically sent to the jail.

Any time the jail staff wanted to release someone, they used a judges' signature stamp to grant ROR's.

What a deal! The sheriff got to shed workload, and if anything went wrong, the judge was left holding the political bag. Other judges were not aware of this practice either.

I retrieved my stamp. The jail wasn't hampered; they just used other judge's stamps after that.

But why does a sheriff want to release people out of the jail? As to this defendant, it was because the district attorney had not gotten around to prosecuting him within the constitutional time limit.

Instead of an ROR, the file should have said, "released for violation of speedy-trial rights guaranteed by the constitution."

The jail staff was protecting the political backside of the district attorney from any possible political fall out as a result of his own bureaucratic lethargy.

Not only are most police officers off duty during the high-crime periods, but also so are most prosecutors, defenders, probation officers and all but one of the judges.

The fact that most crime occurs while the bulk of the criminal justice system is out fishing creates a gigantic mismatch in workload. The burden of that mismatch falls on the jails, which have to hold defendants until the rest of the system comes to work on Mondays.

An extended-hours arraignment court that worked into the late evenings and through the weekends could easily remedy the mismatch.

But, that wouldn't be comfy. CRO

copyright 2007 Larry Stirling


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