Monday, 30 November 2020

Hopkins outlines goals as district attorney

 

After incoming Lake County District Attorney Jon Hopkins takes the oath of office on Dec. 29, deuces are something that county residents are apt to hear a lot more about.

He already has secured an Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) grant to fund a position for a prosecutor and unit whose sole function will be to focus on the most serious DUI cases.

"Those obviously are the fatals, including drunk drivers with injuries, felony and misdemeanor drunk drivers with injuries, people with multiple convictions and felons who have three prior drunk driving convictions," Hopkins said.

"There is going to be zero tolerance for drunk drivers," he added. "We don't play around with DUI's. We don't dismiss them. We don't say, 'Oh, you've got three DUI's, so we'll let you plead (guilty) to one or two.' We don't say, 'You have a burglary felony, so we'll just dismiss the DUI.'

"We want the conviction on the record. If we can prove the case, I want a conviction."

Hopkins is giving increased emphasis on convicting drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs a top priority on his agenda he is presently setting into place. Gangs, staffing, a more efficient flow of cases through the court system, staying ahead of the curve of crimes fostered by population growth, interagency relationships, community involvement and tribal relations are among a host of other priorities.

"We have a very high incidence of fatal drinking and drug-involved traffic accidents," Hopkins said regarding the DUI issue. "Percentage-wise, we are up there in the very top proportionately for the counties in California in those areas."

An OTS information officer said that the agency does not maintain comparative per-capital statistics on a county vs. county basis. But Josh Dye, information officer for the Clear Lake office of the California Highway Patrol (CHP), said there have been 370 misdemeanor arrests and 17 felony arrests in the DUI category to date this year in Lake County.

Hopkins' advancement from Chief Deputy District Attorney to D.A. presents a problem of sorts because he is the agency's top trial attorney and, along with Richard Hinchcliff, only one of two who prosecutes murder cases.

"It's an interesting dilemma," Hopkins acknowledges. "Becoming the D.A. puts all the responsibility on my plate in making sure that the office is discharging its responsibility to the public. I can't continue to try all the murder cases. I've got people I'm bringing along on murder cases and they'll be handling them."

Noting that the county's corps of public defenders has been increased by the board of supervisors, Hopkins said he, too, will ask for additional attorneys, leveraging his request on a more than 60 percent increase in the felony case load since 1999, the year he joined the county D.A., and the effect a negative perception of public safety would have on local economy.

For the present, he is using grants to fund additional hires, but said that's a hazardous practice because grant funds dry up.

"I would prefer to say to the county that there is a strong need for (more attorneys) in the interest of public safety and I think public safety is one of the top priorities for public government," he said. "This county relies on being a resort community for a fair share of its economy. It also relies on the value of property.

"If we are thought of as a county ridden with crime and people don't want to move here to build nice houses, or don't want to establish companies, or come here to enjoy themselves on vacation, we're going to see a downward spiral," he added.

What Hopkins says about:

Case trafficking

"I am undertaking an analysis of the structure of the office. I believe our current structure is rooted in a bygone era and pretty much does things as they were done decades ago. We've made some changes procedurally in how we handle different responsibilities.

"I am also looking at trying to evaluate how we handle the flow of cases and how we might structure it to be more efficient. I've already made some changes in that regard."

"The way we used to do it, the responsibility of filing charges against someone based on a police report was assigned on a rotating basis each day, depending on who was doing what. My concern is that this method does not give attorneys an ownership interest (in a case).

"So, I have pulled a felony trial lawyer out of the trial realm and assigned him to file all the charges that come in every day. But it is going to be a rotating position, so I don't wind up with someone who can only do that."

Training
"One of the biggest problems we have in this office is that we don't have supervisors. We have the District Attorney and the Chief Deputy District Attorney, which I have been for almost eight years.

"We have had a whole lot of attorneys who were new in their positions and I could not do what I think needs to be done in terms of coaching and training them. You train them how to do trial work, you train them how to make good judgments, how to put cases together, how to deal with all the procedures and policies, and then you spend a lot of time with them where you're going over their judgments and their discretionary calls and preparation for trials and how you do the trials.

"It takes up a lot of time. I had a lot of people who were in felony assignments who were new to that assignment and you needed to give them time to work through how to do their jobs really well. I don't like the idea of just saying, 'You went to law school. Here - figure this out.' I think that shortchanges the public.

"I am making a request to the county experience. I am asking for a felony supervisor and a misdemeanor supervisor (to assist with training) and I'm trying to do an analysis that will support this."

The gang issue
"It's going to be big with me in the sense I'm going to do what I can to involve myself with the community, schools, law enforcement agencies, community-based organizations, counseling, prevention, treatment, and everything that there is to prevent falling behind and letting the gang issue get out of control.

"Wherever there is growth, there is growth to the gang problem. I think we need to work hard on that. I'd like to take a special strong stance about violence in the schools and among school children in juvenile court.

"We are kind of a hub in this office because everything that goes to court has to come through us. So, I think we can reach out and involve members of the community in a joint multidisciplinary task force to deal with these problems."

Delays in court appearances because of too few judges
"It's hard to ask people in this office to be fully ready on so many cases at once. Especially when we've got a real problem in the courts. One of the things I would like to do is figure out a way to bring enough pressure to bear on the people who decide who gets judges.

"When they give out 150 judges statewide and we're sitting here with people's cases, and victims not getting the right result because the case gets three or four years old before we can get it to trial and we don't have enough judges, I want to scream at somebody and say, 'Pay attention to Lake County!'

"I don't know how you go about doing that, but if I can figure out a way I can be helpful, I'm going to, because it's not just a matter of the courts having a difficult time doing their work; it's a matter that impacts the entire public safety issue in Lake County."

Casinos and tribal relations
Hopkins referred to Senate Bill 621, which he says provides a special distribution fund under which tribes are required to give a specific amount to mitigate the impact that casinos create. He adds that he has met with leaders of Middletown Rancheria, which operates Twin Pine casino, Big Valley Rancheria for Konocti Vista Casino Resort & Marina, and Robinson Rancheria for Robinson Rancheria Resort & Casino and has received partial funding for mitigation.

"I feel the need to reach out more and connect with the tribal groups in this county to see what we can accomplish as partners," he says. "One of the things that I can do is get more involved in tribal issues as they relate to social problems that may become criminal problems."

Recruiting in a low-pay county
"We don't home-grow many lawyers in Lake County. We don't have a four-year college or a law school. So, we are competing for people from other counties and trying to get them to give up their lifestyle. Our recruiting tool is the people in the office. They're young, they're energetic and they're going somewhere. Our people are good, they're solid and they get along well. From the top, the objective is to create a professional environment in which those people can flourish."

That Hopkins will seek additional clerical help is a certainty.

"Paying the chief deputy D.A. to make a data entry boggles my mind," he says.


E-mail John Lindblom at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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