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District attorney not ‘community involved’

By Josh Parr Daily Planet Stafff
Tuesday October 03, 2000

Residents near Grove Street Park don’t want convicted drug offenders hanging out in their neighborhoods. So neighborhood activists went with Mayor Shirley Dean, Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek and Councilmember Kriss Worthington to meet with the District Attorney. 

In response, Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff pledged he would issue more “stay away orders” to individuals charged with drug-related crimes around the south Berkeley park.  

Blaming liberal Berkeley judges, Orloff backed away from Dean’s request to prosecute “wobbler” laws to the fullest extent possible. “Wobblers” are charges which can be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor.  

Felonies carry sentences that can lead to five years in state prison, while a misdemeanor carries a one-year maximum sentence in a county facility. 

At last week’s meeting, during which stricter prosecution of domestic violence cases was also raised, the group expressed frustration with a host of enforcement issues in south Berkeley. Residents of the Oregon-Russell Street neighborhood believe a lack of prosecutorial toughness toward convicted drug dealers perpetuates a crime problem on their streets, Dean said. 

“They believe that a felony anywhere else is a misdemeanor on Oregon Street,” Dean said. 

In the last month, shootings on Russell Street and continued daily suspected drug activities prompted residents to call for an enhanced police presence in the area. The Berkeley police complied and overt drug dealing seems to have subsided. But residents worry that when police pull back, the problems will return. 

“There is concern that criminals charged with certain crimes related to drug dealing are not being charged to the highest manner. I asked that the DA look into charging “wobblers” as felonies, rather than misdemeanors. We want him to lean toward felonies,” Dean said.  

“Can we find ways to keep people involved in drug trafficking from coming back to the areas? We haven’t found that yet. We have seen problems in this area for over 30 years,” Dean said. 

John Adams, the branch chief of the Berkeley-Albany DA’s office, said that such “stay away orders” are a simple, effective means to curb drug dealing in certain areas. “Stay away orders are easy to enforce. You see a guy who’s not supposed to be in People’s Park for instance and you arrest him. That’s a slam dunk.”  

Charging people with felonies rather than misdemeanors, however, would do little to curb the drug dealing around Russell and Oregon streets, he said. 

“Most of the arrests for drug charges are already felonies,” he added. “The only wobbler for drug related crimes is possession of methamphetamines,” said Adams, mentioning that this is not a big percentage of drug-related arrests in Berkeley. 

The two neighborhood residents who attended the meeting, could not be reached for comment, but Adams and Dean said that the residents asked specifically about a “crack house” on Oregon Street that they claimed was the center of drug activities in their area. Residents also singled out individuals they felt were ringleaders of such activities, and asked the DA to target them for prosecution. 

“I ran a check on that guy right there, and there wasn’t a single drug-related offense,” Adams said. But he added that lack of evidence to prosecute the owners of the Oregon Street house or the individuals in the nearby park doesn’t mean such activities don’t exist. It means that drug dealing in Berkeley is more sophisticated than in neighboring cities, he said. 

“Berkeley is unique in that dealers here don’t sell except to their selected clientele. In Oakland, a person can just walk up the street and buy from a stranger. That makes it much more difficult to track activities here in Berkeley,” he said.  

In the meeting, the DA’s office recommended other means the city could pursue to lower crime in the neighborhood. Orloff cited an Oakland ordinance to impound cars involved in drug-related crimes. Adams also suggested “selling out the property from underneath” the suspects via “civic abatement” ordinances already in city books. 

“If citizens can show that the home is a ‘nuisance’ - anything that tends to affect the quality of life - they could begin a process of removing the people from the house,” he said. 

“The law is in the books, you just have to use it,” Adams added. 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque could not be reached for comment. 

Worthington, however, saw the meeting as much about specific solutions to the Grove Park issues as a means of expressing frustration with the way the District Attorney was running things at a local level. 

“We have community policing,” said Worthington, “and now we want community District Attorneying. We want the DA to reflect Berkeley values, and to take issues like domestic violence seriously.”  

“It wasn’t surprising that they blamed liberal judges, and a liberal City Council for Berkeley’s problems,” he added. 

Significantly, the DA did commit to a broader meeting, and Worthington said that the issues of domestic violence will be brought up then.  

Mayor Dean however, plans on taking the DA’s recommendation to meet with local judges first. 

“After that, we’ll go back to the table with the DA,” she said. 

The next meeting is not yet scheduled.