Council approves legal reforms, making it easier for city attorneys to do their jobs

State law gives Superior Court the sole authority in King County to prosecute felonies like murder and armed robbery and leaves the prosecution of lesser misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors to municipal courts like Auburn’s.

Too often, says City Attorney Stephen Gross, the guys upstairs decline to prosecute lower Class C felonies, like ID theft, preferring instead to kick those back down to municipal court.

As Gross told the Auburn City Council on Monday, this particular practice has created problems for his attorneys, who have only been allowed to charge defendants in those remanded cases with “attempting” to commit Class C felonies, even when the bad guys actually did the deeds.

What Gross sought and council finally approved Monday was to clean up the language of city ordinances so his attorneys could charge defendants in such cases no longer with merely “attempting” to commit Class C felonies, but with actually committing gross misdemeanors.

But convincing council members that that would be the right thing to do turned out to be tougher at first than Gross had perhaps expected.

Council members fretted that the suggested changes would weaken prosecution of felony ID theft in particular by charging it as a lesser gross misdemeanor, and this concern nearly derailed the entire package of sought-after reforms.

Council member Claude DaCorsi recounted the pain to which he and his wife had been subjected over the years in their efforts to overcome multiple instances of identity theft, and the debilitating after-effects on their finances and credit.

“When I see, in my personal opinion, a lessening of the crime of identity theft from a felony to a gross misdemeanor, to me, that’s unacceptable,” DaCorsi said. “Many, many people go through the pain of ID theft, and it is painful. I understand we have 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine for gross misdemeanors, but in many cases, even with the Class C felony portion of it, the judge will slap the wrists of the perpetrator and say, ‘OK, suspended sentence, and pay your fines.’

“… I believe we should put the emphasis on county prosecutors to do their job. Declining felonies because (prosecutors) are either overworked or don’t have the staff – whatever their reason – is to me not a reason not to prosecute. In my opinion, a Class C felony is a felony, and should not be a gross misdemeanor,” DaCorsi said.

DaCorsi added that with the ID theft section left in the ordinance, he could not vote yes.

“You could strip that exhibit out of the ordinance,” Gross responded. “My suggestion though, is it would be better to have it in than to add it back in later on. I understand councilman DaCorsi’s position, but we have no authority to tell the prosecutor what to charge and what not to charge. So, if you strip it out of this ordinance, we can’t charge anything but an “attempt” again, and we’re back doing the same things we are, which creates more work for my prosecutors.”

In the end, however, when council agreed to strip the ID theft section out, DaCorsi joined all of his peers in adopting the reforms.

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