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Manhattan Beach-Sponsored Misdemeanor Legislation Moves Forward

May 09, 2024 08:04PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Manhattan Beach Police Chief Rachel Johnson, Mayor Joe Franklin, and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi in Sacramento at a hearing on AB 2309.

A bill that would give a city power to prosecute its state misdemeanors is winding its way through the process in Sacramento - as Manhattan Beach leaders made an appearance to show support.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Joe Franklin and Police Chief Rachel Johnson testified before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Assembly Bill (AB) 2309 on April 23. The bill successfully passed the committee and is now moving forward to the full State Assembly. If approved by the Assembly, it will move over to the State Senate for review and approval.

AB 2309, introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, would authorize the city attorney of any general law or chartered city to prosecute certain state misdemeanors such as public intoxication, disturbing the peace, and drug and paraphernalia possession committed within the city. Currently, the city must receive the consent of the Los Angeles County District Attorney to prosecute those misdemeanors, but that office has said it would not prosecute those crimes. The Manhattan Beach City Council agreed in April that the city would serve as a cosponsor of Muratsuchi's bill.

Other cities and organizations have sent official letters of support for the legislation, including the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, the League of California Cities, the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce, and the cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita, Mission Viejo, and Stanton.

“At the local level, we are directly charged with managing and overseeing our police department and the public safety teams our constituents depend on,” Mayor Joe Franklin said in a statement. “Our constituents expect these safety services to provide for their protection from not only violent and serious crime, but from harassment, abuse, and quality of life crimes. Unfortunately, in our city and many others across the region, we are unable to meet the public safety expectations of our community because of our limited prosecutorial power. AB 2309 will provide the ability for local governments to fulfill this responsibility on behalf of the people depending on us.”

“There must be a balance between enforcement and consequences that match the crimes being committed,” said Chief Rachel Johnson. “But when there are zero consequences to illegal behavior, it creates an imbalance that jeopardizes our ability to protect people. That is what AB 2309 is really about from a police department’s standpoint—protecting people.”

Special Directive 20-07 Limits Prosecutions

Since Gascón was elected in 2020, Manhattan Beach has been chafing under his limitations in pursuing certain misdemeanors. In June 2023, the City Council voted to follow a two-track approach to punishing misdemeanors: One, the city would continue to work with Gascón's office to explore other options; and two, the city would investigate new avenues for what it could do on its own to hold offenders accountable.

In November 2023, the City Council voted to add prosecutorial services to its tool kit to combat "quality of life" misdemeanors and infractions in the city. The vote allowed the city to add prosecutorial services to its contract with its current law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon. Under the agreement, trespassing, graffiti, illegal shopping carts, public urination, public nuisances and smoking in public can be prosecuted as misdemeanors. Drinking in public, unlicensed dogs, unvaccinated dogs, unleashed dogs, and dogs on the beach can be prosecuted as infractions.

However, the city does not have the authority to prosecute state misdemeanors such as public intoxication, disturbing the peace, and drug and paraphernalia possession.

In Special Directive 20-07 limiting the prosecution of those misdemeanors (issued in December 2020), Gascón explained his reasoning that "Los Angeles County courts should not be revolving doors for those in need of treatment and services. Currently, over 47% of those incarcerated pre-trial on misdemeanor cases suffer from mental illness. Likewise, nearly 60% of those released each day have a significant substance use disorder. Meanwhile, individuals experiencing homelessness account for almost 20% of arrests in Los Angeles despite comprising only 1.7% of the population. The status quo has exacerbated social ills and encouraged recidivism at great public expense."

Gascón continued: "Despite the immense social costs, studies show that prosecution of the offenses driving the bulk of misdemeanor cases have minimal, or even negative, long-term impacts on public safety. Agencies equipped with the social-service tools necessary to address the underlying causes of offenses such as unlicensed driving, sex work, drug possession, drinking in public, and trespassing are best positioned to prevent recidivism and will thus be empowered to provide help to those in need. The goal of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is to protect public safety. To do so as effectively as possible, we will direct those in need of services to treatment providers, divert those undeserving of criminal records to appropriate fora, and reorient our focus towards combating violent and serious criminal offenses."

Countywide efforts to recall Gascón failed in both 2021 and 2022. In March 2024, Gascón was the top vote-getter in the Los Angeles County primary election, but did not receive enough votes to avoid a runoff. Gascón will face off against former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman in November.

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