gavel.jpgA chronic offenders program intended to force people who repeatedly fail to show up in court for public drunkenness citations into jail or treatment has come to an abrupt end this week following a California Court of Appeal ruling.

The court ruled Thursday that the San Francisco Superior Court does not have the authority to jail such offenders by charging them with civil contempt of court.

Instead, the court noted that the appropriate means of handling failures to appear is through the filing of criminal misdemeanor charges by prosecutors.

The ruling came in response to a challenge filed by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office on Sept. 28, 2012 on behalf of Warren Morris, a man who had failed to appear on 22 citations between June 28, 2010 and June 30, 2012, according to the public defender’s office.

Morris, one of around a dozen chronic offenders targeted by the 4-month-old chronic offenders program, was arrested on Sept. 26, 2012 on multiple warrants issued following his failures to appear in court, according to the appeals court ruling.

When the district attorney’s office declined to press misdemeanor charges against Morris, a superior court judge ordered Morris to appear on civil contempt of court charges.

Morris was told he would be held in custody for three weeks before a hearing could be heard on his case, according to the appeals court ruling. He ultimately pleaded no contest to 22 contempt violations, receiving a suspended sentence of 110 days with the condition he participate in a service program through the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The public defender’s office argued in its challenge that the program was unconstitutional, because offenders could be jailed up to 150 days without a trial or any assessment to determine if they were in fact a chronic inebriate or in a treatment program.

“The U.S. Constitution provides that a person accused of a crime is entitled to a jury trial,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement today. “The chronic inebriate court attempted to do an end run around this right by holding people in civil contempt instead of filing criminal charges, such as drunk in public or disorderly conduct.”

The court’s ruling has effectively killed the chronic offenders program, which was developed as a collaborative effort between the San Francisco Superior Court, city departments and law enforcement, court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said. There are no plans to appeal the ruling.

Contempt proceedings against Morris and others affected by the program have been annulled, and Morris has been ordered to appear on the infraction in traffic court, Donlan said.

Donlan said the program had been intended to not only force offenders into treatment but also reduce the drain on police and court resources caused by a small number of offenders.

“We the court felt that we had a legitimate legal means to pursue this approach,” Donlan said. “Prior to doing so we had strongly suggested to the DA’s office that they file misdemeanor cases under failure to appear. However the DA’s office declined to file those cases, so the court was left with no alternative but to proceed.”

District Attorney George Gascon and Police Chief Greg Suhr both expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling.

“I remain committed to helping chronic offenders get appropriate treatment and improving the quality of life for our neighborhoods,” Gascon said in a statement. “We are reviewing our available options and will work to create a humane and effective response to the challenges posed by the most chronic offenders.”

Suhr said his department would continue to work with other agencies to get assistance to the chronic offenders by other means.

“We were hopeful that we would be able to provide assistance to those in such diminished capacity they can’t care for themselves,” Suhr said in a statement. “To do nothing when people can fall victim to the elements or worse is not an option.”

Sara Gaiser, Bay City News

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