The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office filed more standalone charges for possession of drug paraphernalia in the 11 days since Brooke Jenkins took over as the city’s chief prosecutor than the city had seen in roughly a decade.
Then on Tuesday, Jenkins promptly dismissed them in a move that signaled a chaotic handover at the agency, which lost 15 staffers within a week of the new district attorney being sworn into the role vacated by her recalled predecessor Chesa Boudin.
More than a dozen charges for possession of mostly pipes by her office will be, or have already been, dismissed—because Jenkins said they violated policy that directs prosecutors not to charge people for standalone possession of drugs and or paraphernalia.
All of the charges were filed by one line attorney.
“I have made no policy changes in regards to charging for simple drug possession and paraphernalia,” Jenkins said in a prepared statement. “My office will immediately withdraw these charges as they were done out of accordance with our office’s policy. I am focused on holding serious drug dealers, particularly those dealing fentanyl, accountable and not targeting and incarcerating those suffering from addiction. We will take the appropriate steps internally to ensure that our staff is following our policy.”
Jenkins’ office said the mistake was due to a now-fired employee hired under Boudin who directed the line attorney to file the charges. While rare, charges for such citations did occur from time to time during Boudin’s administration.
Crystal Carpino, the deputy public defender handling the 17 reversed cases, said the initial charging decisions took her aback. “Last week was the first time I had ever seen a standalone paraphernalia case charged,” she said.
On Tuesday, Carpino said she was in court when 10 of the paraphernalia cases were tossed and seven others had been put on the calendar for dismissal in the interest of justice.
Charging people for simply possessing a glass pipe has been uncommon since the administration of District Attorney George Gascon.
According to a city database, possessing drug paraphernalia is usually filed with other charges. Of the nearly 3,000 cases in the past decade involving a violation of Health and Safety Code 11364a, just nine were standalone charges.
Police still issue such citations.
“We do cite every once in a while,” SFPD veteran Lt. A.J. Holder said. “The DA does not usually prosecute that stuff anymore.”
Holder said that wasn’t even the case during the Gascon era, but that he would like to see such cases prosecuted.
Public Defender Mano Raju had the opposite reaction when he found out about the uptick in paraphernalia charges, saying Jenkins appeared to be resorting to draconian War on Drugs tactics.
“San Francisco must not regress to the inhumane, cruel, and costly war on drugs,” Raju said. “Let’s remember that the war on drugs, which began under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, did nothing to reduce drug use or sales. Nor was that its intended purpose. Rather, the drug war was designed as an attack on the poor and people of color that fueled criminalization and mass incarceration of vulnerable communities for decades. At that, it was enormously successful and harmful.”
While Jenkins isn’t claiming credit for the errant filings in low-level drug cases, she is taking other steps to position herself as the city’s top crime fighter.
On Tuesday, Jenkins publicized her decision to file felony charges against a suspect in the attack on a Western Addition community leader, James Spingola.
Nelson Martinez, 24, is facing various assault and battery charges for allegedly beating Spingola with a wooden plank last Friday morning outside the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, where Spingola is executive director.
Martinez and the other person, who are both apparently homeless, allegedly attacked Spingola when he asked them to clear the steps of the center.
Jenkins released a statement saying the charges “send a message that the safety of every community in San Francisco is a top priority for my office.”
“Under my watch, utterly vicious attacks like this one will never be tolerated,” she said. “Violent offenders will be held accountable for their actions.”
Rev. Amos Brown, head of the local chapter of the NAACP, said Spingola was seriously injured and may lose an eye as a result of the attack. Brown said he and Spingola have been advocating for the city to address an increase in visible homelessness in the Western Addition for over a year.
“He simply (told) these two persons, ‘You can’t camp here, you can’t hang out here, I have children coming into this program,’” Brown said. “Then they go and get a board and start beating him unmercifully.”
Michael Barba contributed additional reporting for this story.
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at email@example.com