By Michele Spencer
Candidates Cliff Newall, incumbent District Attorney, and Glenn Jennings, opponent criminal lawyer, participated in a debate to be elected June 5th for Nevada County District Attorney. The forum was very well attended.
The District Attorney is the chief prosecutor of criminal law for the county who must establish priorities regarding what to prosecute with limited resources.
PREFACE: Given this campaign has been described as “…one of the county’s most contentious races” (Union 4/7/18), a brief explanation of a primary basis for such contention is in order. It revolves around disputes concerning Sheriff Narcotics Task Force Officer Jason Mackey’s competency and/or honesty in the preparation of search warrants in particular marijuana cases. The Sheriff and District Attorney offices, after separate investigations, each found the officer as perhaps insufficiently trained and inexperienced but honest in his preparation of search warrants and did nothing wrong. When Mackey thought he made a mistake in a warrant and shouldn’t testify in a misdemeanor case, DA Jennings dismissed the case. It was revealed much later that Mackey had made no mistake in the warrant. Cliff Newell states that Jennings should have examined the warrant itself and given Mackey guidance rather than dismissing the case. “You don’t let officers make decisions regarding testimony or whether a case goes to trial. You argue it in chambers.” said Newell. Glenn Jennings claims that the officer is dishonest and Cliff Newell was involved in an unethical cover-up and corruption which motivated Jennings to leave the District Attorney’s Office and run against him. Officer Mackey has not been charged with any crime but defense attorneys are using Jennings arguments to have cases based on Mackey warrants dismissed. At this writing, these latter cases have not been resolved in court.
Fran Cole, attorney and community activist, very aptly moderated this debate under these circumstances.
D.A. Cliff Newell described himself as the most qualified and a steady, tempered and experienced leader. He has both a business and law background with an emphasis on crime prevention. He has been D.A for 12 years, on budget, having made great hires and innovative programs addressing mental illness, addiction and homelessness while maintaining a high conviction rate at trial. “I have overseen and been involved in prosecuting every major case in the past 12 years.” he said. Newell argued that the application of his skills and vision have helped to reduce crime and recidivism in our county and kept us safe.
Criminal law attorney, Glenn Jennings, claims to have had 100 jury trials, unlike his opponent, and promises to use that experience to effectively mentor younger prosecutors and personally prosecute high profile cases. He worked under Newell in Truckee as a deputy district attorney and as Nevada County office manager. He claims that Newell lost 5 assistant district attorneys in 3 years, describing his office as chaotic. “Staff stays around when they respect the boss.” said Jennings. Newell claims all 5 left for personal reasons, i.e. to retire or for higher pay in other counties. Jennings claims to have left Newell’s office over Newell’s unethical conduct which Newell denies.
As concerns legal marijuana, they both agree to follow the law and enforce the regulations but will focus on the cartels and serious, violent offenders.
“To date no officers have been prosecuted for unlawful use of force in this county.” said Newell. Both candidates concur that proper police use of force policy must require that an officer may only use deadly force if their life is threatened. Jennings claims Newell has a “hands off” attitude toward allegations of use of excessive force by the Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force which Newell disputes. Nevertheless in order to promote clarity and accountability concerning their actions, both candidates want on duty law enforcement to wear body cameras, which are now lacking due to budget restraints.
As to deporting undocumented immigrants and cooperating with ICE, Jennings stated that it was up to the Sheriff to deal with ICE not the DA. Newell added that only undocumented convicted felons should be deported. Regarding animal control matters, both agreed that only animal cruelty cases, based on provable intent to harm or injure, should be prosecuted.
Given the fact that trials are very expensive and due to budget restraints, Newell claims that plea bargains are often best practice to negotiate resolution of many criminal cases. “We have prosecuted 38,000 cases during my 12 year tenure. We had 20 trials in 2016 and 22 in 2017 based on true, provable charges. We have a very high conviction rate,” he said.
“Rape kits are currently only available in Sacramento. There are an insufficient number of rapes in Nevada County to justify the cost of training local experts. I need expert evaluation of information so I can prevail at trial.” Newell said. Jennings said he would train local experts himself if elected.
Even though there is little racial diversity in the county, both candidates are committed to preventing discrimination. Both agreed that race must be irrelevant in criminal cases.
In instances where there is jury nullification because they don’t agree with the law that was broken, Newell would re-try the case but Jennings respects all jury verdicts.
The homeless as well as repeat offenders who commit crimes should be assessed for mental health, addiction or other rehab problems and dealt with on a community outreach and intervention level rather than criminally. “Compliance with a community intervention plan can be re rewarded. They just need a hand up not a hand out.” said Newell. Jennings agreed. “Most just need help.” he said.
As concerns prosecuting children as adults, the law is that children under 16 cannot be tried as adults. However, even though children 16 to 18 are rarely prosecuted as adults, Jennings is particularly open to treating offenders in that age group as adults when they have committed heinous crimes.
When asked what their greatest accomplishment has been (or would be) as District Attorney, Newell claims that he has stabilized the office which is not driven by the Sheriff’s Department although he has a good working relationship with them. He asserted that he has acted with integrity and that data supports that the crime rate, particularly violent crime, has fallen since he has taken office. Jennings asserted that he would truly stabilize the office by earning the respect of staff who he would mentor early and quickly to assure prosecutorial confidence and competence.
In closing, Cliff Newell asserted that he had always worked diligently with staff as a team and had managed to overcome many a budget crisis. His goal has always been to promote public safety. He confirmed that in his role as District Attorney he functions both as a criminal lawyer as well as an administrator. He states that he is deeply involved in all cases, claiming a high conviction rate. He said he is a proven leader with vision and commitment to outreach. “Look at the great results of referrals to drug court. Defendants are turned into good, tax paying citizens as a result.” he said. “I’ve worked to create great programs and do whatever I can to support community safety.” he concluded.
Glenn Jennings claims he would be better at stabilizing the office by earning the respect of staff by mentoring prosecutors early and quickly and by prosecuting high profile cases himself. “Should a job that pays $183,000 a year go to a prosecutor who actually tries cases or to an administrator?” he asked. “A high turnover rate indicates chaos not stability. I can provide stability.” he added.