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Morning Report: City Attorney’s Hands-Off Approach to Infractions Raises Big Questions

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott appears at Golden Hall on election night. / Photo by Megan Wood

The overwhelming majority of the criminal cases filed in San Diego are not misdemeanors or felonies. They’re infractions.

Although the punishments are less severe, challenging an infraction isn’t necessarily any easier. 

For years, defense attorneys and advocates have argued that a 2017 decision by the city attorney’s office under Mara Elliott to stop overseeing the exchange of evidence in infraction cases removed a key layer of oversight in the judicial system and effectively outsourced the job of prosecutor to cops [1]. Instead, defendants need to go to the police agency that filed the infraction and ask for the information that might clear their name.

That’s an obvious problem when an officer lies or deletes the body camera footage before it can be turned over.

In a new story, Jesse Marx breaks down the ongoing dispute and the justifications for the city attorney’s hands-off approach to infraction cases.

As both a cost-saving and legal matter, Elliott’s office has argued that it isn’t required to prosecute infractions, that judges are responsible for protecting a defendant’s rights in infraction cases and that the public is better served by the non-involvement of city prosecutors.

The number of non-traffic infractions filed in Superior Court has risen sharply in recent years. Defense attorney Coleen Cusack, who works pro bono with homeless people, has said the policy amounts to the city giving “the police a playground without any supervision.” 

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The Morning Report was written by Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.