The prosecuting attorney’s office should file charges in more challenging cases, cases that meet the required “without a reasonable doubt” standard, but also those that do not guarantee a conviction, a candidate for the office’s top position says.
“There is a view, the interpretation of the ethical duty not to charge cases (unless the case meets the ‘without a reasonable doubt’ standard), that leads some people to believe if it’s not a guaranteed win, we don’t charge it,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said Friday. “We’ve got to try some of these cases we believe we can win.”
Some of his colleagues have, in the past, told him if he wished to pursue charges in some cases — he gave the Paulino Evangelista case in 2003 as an example — he should try it himself. He did, and won. Evangelista pleaded guilty to 15 burglary and related charges. He ended up being sentenced to 125 years in prison after he failed to show up in court for his initial sentencing hearing.
Roth, 47, said he doesn’t keep track of his court wins and losses, although most cases end with a plea agreement. Nationwide, 98 percent of criminal cases end in plea agreements, he said. His primary duties, of late, have put him in court for asset forfeiture, taking the equipment and money criminals use in and for criminal purposes. Hawaii County, in the last four years, has seized $2.3 million in assets, more than even the City and County of Honolulu in the same time period.
If elected, Roth said he would also try to decrease the time frame in which charges are filed for some crimes, and change some of the ways prosecutors approach the charging process. He said he would like to see more deputy prosecutors visit crime scenes, because they may notice something about a scene relevant to prosecution that police officers may miss. An example, he said, was at the scene of a traffic fatality, where he noticed a video camera that caught the crash on film. Police officers hadn’t seen that, he said.
The prosecuting attorney’s office can do better at charging some crimes in a more timely fashion, he added.
From a policy standpoint, the office could also work to find alternative punishments, rather than just asking for prison sentences for all defendants.
“We need to think smarter, not just tougher,” Roth said. “We’ve got to put away the right criminals.”
With overcrowded prisons, for every person a judge sends to prison, another prisoner is released. He pointed to the ignition interlock law, which puts devices on the vehicles of people who have been convicted of drunken driving, as one such alternative sentence. Since the law went into effect, more than 1,000 devices have been installed. The devices have prevented those vehicles from starting 4,424 times and more than 500 of those times, the person trying to start the car was over the legal blood alcohol content limit. That’s a preventative sentence, he said.
The person sentenced to use the interlock device also pays for it, Roth said. He’d like to see a similar type of sentence available, with electronic ankle monitors, for example. That would allow someone on house arrest to leave for work, and new monitors can also check blood alcohol content, just by being in contact with the person’s skin. That could help enforce probation conditions ordering the defendant not to drink alcohol, he said. And again, the convicted person could be ordered to pay for the monitor.
Some of the county’s cold cases, including the Peter “Peter Boy” Kema case, “need to be looked at with fresh eyes,” he said.
Roth has a background in community oriented prosecuting, first in Los Angeles, then Honolulu and Hawaii Island. The prosecuting attorney’s office should continue to take measures to prevent crimes, through education, enforcement and “engineering,” either creating new laws or physically changing the environment around buildings or neighborhoods, he said.