Court-appointed lawyers and investigators defending six Santa Rosa gang members tied to a 2008 Jenner beach murder submitted bills to Sonoma County totaling more than $520,000. The money, divided among 11 attorneys and three investigators for the Asian Boyz defendants, was in addition to full-time salaries paid to some of the lawyers under contract with the county to represent poor people. The costs were driven up, in part, by the more than two years it took then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua to decide whether he would seek the death penalty.
Eighteen months after leaving public office, Sonoma County’s former top prosecutor has returned to the legal arena, albeit on different terms. Stephan Passalacqua, district attorney from 2003-2011, appeared in a Santa Rosa courtroom this week as the defense lawyer for a man accused of drunken driving. He’s delved into business law with a focus on real estate, wine and water issues, and picks up the occasional criminal case.
By most accounts from the legal community, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has done well in her first 12 months as the county’s top law enforcement officer, and is a marked improvement over her predecessor, Stephan Passalacqua, whom she defeated in a bruising 2010 election campaign.
Investigators in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office were told Tuesday that they no longer will be allowed to routinely take home their work vehicles. The issue has been simmering in a months-long dispute between District Attorney Jill Ravitch and investigators in her office. Several county supervisors said the county should review and possibly reduce a long list of perks given to county employees on top of their salaries.
A statewide effort to reduce prison crowding that shifts a sizable burden to counties has been labeled the biggest change to Sonoma County’s criminal justice system in a generation. Beginning Oct. 1, low-level felons normally sentenced to prison will instead be kept at the county jail. And inmates usually released under state parole supervision will be transferred to county probation jurisdiction.
In 2008, Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies stumbled upon a marijuana farm off Llano Road. It would spark a legal controversy involving the sanctity of the home, privacy rights and just what officers can do when they suspect wrongdoing.
Sonoma County government expects to eliminate 223 jobs, resulting in 63 layoffs, to help plug a $43 million gap in the county budget for the coming fiscal year. The plan would cut the size of the county’s workforce by almost 6 percent and touch nearly every department. But the county will not have to cut as deeply as it first thought.
Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana cooperative based in Mendocino County, appears to be about as legitimate as such an organization can be. It has a Mendocino County Sheriff’s permit to grow medical marijuana as a cooperative, undergoes county inspections and its plants are tagged with Sheriff’s Office zip ties. But the legal precautions could not guarantee safe passage of marijuana through Sonoma County.
Sonoma County’s new district attorney, Jill Ravitch, took office just seven weeks ago and has already faced enormous budget hurdles, staff tumult and a public relations debacle. “I didn’t realize the complexity of this job until I got here,” Ravitch says.
A bid by Sonoma County government to trim an extra 5 percent of spending this fiscal year is closer to reality. Among 20 county departments, 15 have already met or exceeded the savings goal. But the leaders of five departments — the sheriff’s, district attorney, public defender and clerk-recorder’s offices and the Permit and Resource Management Department — expressed some doubts about reaching the target.