Q&A With Matt Finnegan, Candidate for DA

by Mark Scaramella, February 18, 2010

Matt Finnegan is running for Mendocino County District Attorney because “I would like to make a difference in Mendocino County's public safety and to create a system which is much more evenhanded and just in terms of how people are charged with crimes and what happens to them once they are ultimately convicted or not.”

Finnegan began his career as an attorney in 2000 with the Mendocino County Public Defender's Office. He worked as a prosecutor the following year, then worked for a private Santa Rosa firm in 2002. Preferring prosecution and rural surroundings, he went to work in the Lake County District Attorney's Office in 2003, then returned to Mendocino County as a prosecutor in 2004. In 2005, Finnegan formed the Mendocino County Public Attorneys Association representing the County's public attorneys.

Finnegan was a founding member of the Measure B campaign. And intends to enforce California marijuana laws by the book. Basically, medical marijuana is legal. The rest isn't.

Finnegan was abruptly fired by DA Lintott last May without explanation and has since filed a wrongful termination claim against the County through the Civil Service Commission.

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You say that the current DA charges inconsistently?

At present, a person with a similar record can commit a similar or the same crime under similar circumstances and one day they are charged one way, and the next day they are charged less, perhaps with a misdemeanor instead of a felony. There is no consistent policy for charging in the District Attorney's Office. Because there is no consistent policy, the charging depends on who's sitting in the chair doing the charging on a given day. Under DA Vroman, he charged almost all the cases himself. The first thing I would do as District Attorney is to charge every case myself because that's the only way to guarantee absolute consistency from the beginning. We would also develop written guidelines for what kinds of charges would be made for certain common crimes.

How would you charge a trimmer found on an illegal grow?

That depends if it's a trespass grow or in the national forest.

What if they had been invited to a grow by a property owner?

Conspiracy to cultivate comes to mind. That's a felony.

So trimmers get charged with felonies? Is the trimmer as responsible as the property owner?

Under the law they are, yes.

The other day there was a case where there was a property owner and 11 trimmers all charged with felonies.

I would concentrate on the trespass grows on other people's property or on government land.

So all the trimmers working for a property owner are charged the same? All felonies?

If the responsible person was there and was identifiable as the person in charge, that person would get the felony charge. Whether the others got it would depend on how much involvement they had in the operation. One of the problems with marijuana is that there are not very many legitimate misdemeanor charges for cultivation. There is an affirmative defense for medical marijuana. But trimming is not a wobbler. It's a felony.

Why do we have to keep wasting money prosecuting trimmers? Why can't they get some kind of lesser process? The county is paying for all these defense attorneys.

One way would be for some people to agree to testify against the others.

Shouldn't there be some way to avoid trimmers all getting private attorneys or public defenders?

In another case I'm aware of at a grow outside of Ukiah there were three trimmers who ran away during a raid and one of them was caught and they simply dismissed that case.

Would you do that?

In that situation, no. That was a large scale trespass grow. People were living on someone else's property growing marijuana. That person would be charged with a felony. But in the eleven-trimmer case the focus would be to on the person running the grow, assuming it's an illegal grow. Of course if the grow was a legitimate medical marijuana grow that would be different. I could charge trimmers with felonies but the priority would not be those kinds of cases. I would not assign a lot of resources to those cases. An argument can be made that if a case is low priority they probably shouldn't be filed rather than filing it and then pleading it out. I would not file things in order to jack up the trimmers to get a conviction. Either you have it or you don't.

What do you think of Supervisor Pinches' suggestion that nuisance pot grows not be filed as criminal charges? He suggested that small pot grows, medical or not, should simply see the plants eradicated and an eradication fees be charged. No prosecution.

I did not know it's possible to do something like that. I didn't know you could fine someone for cultivating marijuana and take the marijuana but not charge them with a crime. I don't know you can do that. On the surface it sounds like a good idea. It depends on what you call a small grow. The law today is that any marijuana being grown must be reasonably related to your medical condition. If someone has a doctor's recommendation then whatever they are growing should not even be a nuisance.

Who's supporting you so far?

So far I've received quite a bit of law enforcement support and union support. I've given presentations to two or three of the cop unions. But it's too early for them to make any endorsements. I've been endorsed by the president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association and the president of the Willits Police Officers Association. And Fred Keplinger from the Ukiah Police Officers Association personally endorsed me. I've also been in contact with some of the shooting organizations. The Ukiah Rod and Gun Club does not endorse. I gave a presentation to the board of the Redwood Practical Shooters Association on the coast recently.

What did you think about the way the Denoyer case was handled?

You love this! (Laughs.) A lot of resources were applied to a case that I am not sure was provable from the beginning. Third party culpability is difficult to prove. It is a huge issue for juries.

Because he blamed the caretakers?

Whether it's true or not, if I put you in charge of my child as a babysitter, and I say feed my kids while I go to the movies and you don't feed them, you can make the argument that I'm responsible because I got this babysitter who didn't follow my instructions. But the reality is that the jury will look at you for not feeding the kid. That was a hard case to prove from the outset. I would've looked at it very closely from that aspect before filing it. That case also presented a large logistical problem for the enforcement people. I don't think the District Attorney was involved enough at the beginning. There were so many horses and two different locations. It was hard to collect the evidence and put everything together.

Did you think the enforcement work prior to the arrest was adequate?

I don't know enough about what happened prior to the charges to comment on that.

Under what circumstances would you reject a case or ask the cops to refile it?

You have to have a reasonable certainty that a conviction can be attained at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. If not, I wouldn't file the case. It also depends on the seriousness of the charge. If you had a simple battery on the street where there were only the two witnesses and no corroborating evidence either way and there's no injury you probably couldn't prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt. I would want to see contemporaneous recorded statements and photographs of the crime scene. From my trial experience, juries want to know what people said at the time, not later after they talk to friends and reporters. Juries want to know what they said at first.

Also, I would immediately implement sit-down trainings with all law enforcement in the county to explain how we approach certain common kinds of cases  —  domestic violence, assault, etc. If you have a non-injury domestic violence case then we would explain exactly what we need to see. To my knowledge, that does not exist now. That's part of creating consistency in charging. You have to explain to the police exactly what we need to see before making before filing charges. There may be exceptions, but that kind of communications is easy to do and creates not only consistency, but better law enforcement.

How do you distinguish yourself from David Eyster?

I am much more attuned to prosecution in the last ten years than he is. For example, when he was a prosecuting attorney there was no medical marijuana. He hasn't had to deal with that at all from a prosecution perspective. I'm not all that familiar with his platform. I don't know his policy on marijuana. I don't know if he intends to standardize certain kinds of cases. But I can say that when a case is charged, a written offer should be attached to the complaint, a written statement of eligibility for diversion or treatment should be attached to the complaint. There should not be overcharging. Charging should be consistent and reasonable. If it's a provable case with extreme violence, the offer will not be very great.

As District Attorney I will implement a policy to discourage  last minute settlement of cases set for jury trial. Historically, many of the cases that jurors are summoned to appear on are settled mid-morning while the jurors wait to be called to the courtroom. I will collaborate with the superior court judges to create a policy to greatly decrease these now common events. On the other hand I will encourage Deputy District attorneys to take cases to trial where justice requires a full conviction as charged.

How do you see prosecutorial discretion working?

The basic standard has to be, Can you prove it to a jury, based on your experience? Community priorities also have to be taken into account. Some communities think that methamphetamine use and being under the influence is a big deal. District Attorney discretion is the biggest level of discretion in county government. It should be exercised carefully. If the current District Attorney is saying that she has very little discretion in charging and prosecuting, then that would be a self-serving statement to justify a larger budget.

What do you think of the District Attorney's budget these days?

Much more can be done with the resources they now have. There are three management attorney positions and 19 attorneys. When I was there it was 15 or 16. I would personally charge cases and take them to trial. The Assistant District Attorney would also charge cases and try cases. We would do courtroom work and the Chief Deputy would do courtroom work as well. I have tried over 40 cases before juries, misdemeanors and felonies.

I did a jury trial for the Escareno competency case. I don't want to comment on the facts of that case at this point because he still has not been sentenced. I can tell you that direct filings are a very big issue. And in this community they are probably even more so. If you are going to make a direct filing you have to do it early in the case. You have two make that decision and file the charges within 48 hours of arrest. So if the characteristics of the crime and the person charged fall into that category it has to be filed quickly. But people may not realize that there is a middle ground. You can file it as a juvenile being held as an adult. I would institute written and followed guidelines and the decisions would not be made by one person. There would be a clear explanation why a juvenile would be filed as an adult and a written statement by the District Attorney in each case explaining the reasons. The basic factors that were used would be made public. You would not compromise an investigation, but you would make it clear to the public why you were doing what you were doing. We considered this and this, and this is why we came to this decision. To the best of my knowledge the District Attorney's Office has never done that. If a District Attorney wanted to change a filing, the case would have to be dismissed and refiled. That can always happen.

DA Lintott justified her budget request last year by claiming that defense lawyers were filing so many motions that her office to had to expend extra time on all those marijuana cases and responding to all the associated motions.

I suppose that could be a workload issue. But I don't think that's a budget issue. When I was there, I don't think that was much of an issue. I don't think the fact that defense attorneys are filing motions should be much of a problem at all. Motions are part of any criminal case.

What do you think of the comment made by Tommy Wayne Kramer in the Ukiah Daily Journal a few months ago saying that the District Attorney's job involves dealing with “hostility, anger, disloyalty and sabotage. And that's from your colleagues”?

I would categorize the morale in the District Attorney's office today as very low. And yes, some of those words probably do apply.

Where did your complaint about the three top attorneys using County cars to commute end up?

I don't think that has been resolved. The county sent me a letter from the General Services Department saying that my complaint had been forwarded to Beth Norman, Meredith Lintott and Jill Ravitch and the Board of Supervisors. About this time last year I was given Jill's car to commute to the coast for a while. So apparently there has been some change. I don't think the District Attorney's Office should be driving cars for non-job-related functions such as investigating or responding to crime scenes unless they are formally on-call to respond to a crime. If I'm elected District Attorney, I will not take a county car.

Do you think your complaint about the car usage had anything to do with your departure from the district attorney's office?

It could have. It was very contemporaneous with my departure. But I don't know what other people were thinking.

What were the circumstances of your departure?

I was asked to leave and two of the District Attorney investigators watched me pack everything up. [DA] Meredith [Lintott] told me I was being placed on administrative leave and asked me to sign a piece of paper and told me to get everything out of my office and do not make any further contact with the office  —  stay at home and wait for a phone call during business hours. Two months later I was formally dismissed from the county's payroll. I filed an appeal and there was a hearing last November. I'm told there will be a ruling in mid-March. An arbitrator-mediator is supposed to make a ruling. The Civil Service Commission farmed it out. I was opposed to that. But the Commission is all volunteers and there are only four right now. So I would have to get three out of four to win. I wanted to make my case in front of five commissioners. It also appeared that it was going to drag out over a number of months. I organized the public attorneys so that they would have civil service protections so they can no longer fire people for no reason, especially when a new DA is elected. They have to have good cause, not political or personal reasons. And certainly not because I complained about their use of cars for commuting. I have no interest in suing the county or collecting money. I simply want my job back and to clear my name. I want it made clear that I was not fired for good cause because there's lots of speculation out there. This will be the first case where a public attorney has used the Civil Service Commission process that I know of. of course, any decision made by the arbitrator will be subject to appeal by me or the county to the Commission or to a judge.

I see on Ms. Lintott's campaign flyer that she lists something called “promises kept.” What promises did she keep?

I don't recall that she made any particular promises. One thing that's not happening is the District Attorney's office being involved in the investigation of crimes. If she made a promise about that, that's certainly not been kept. But one of the main functions of the District Attorney's office is to help investigate crime. Under my leadership, the office will definitely have prosecutors who will respond to domestic violence cases, and any large or gun-related or violent crime, or when there is a possible prison time involved. People from the District Attorney's Office will go out to those. There needs to be a gang specialist in the office with the expertise to be able to assist in the prosecution of gang-related crimes. And to help solve or investigate ongoing gang related crimes.

What kind of investigation is not being done now?

When a patrol officer response to a non-routine serious crime scene, sometimes the resources necessary are not available from the sheriff or the police department. Writing warrants, helping collect evidence, interviewing other suspects and witnesses, or going to other locations. If a deputy gets involved in something that's more than just a few page police report and requires warrants an investigator with the District Attorney's Office should be available 24 hours a day to come out and help with those.

What about the Major Crimes Task Force?

The task force is not a county operation, it's under the state Department of Justice control. But I suppose DA staff could be dispatched to do that also. The District Attorney does not have direct control over that unit. But I could still dispatch someone from the District Attorney's Office to make sure that the legal aspects of the case are handled correctly such as what we would need to prove a case in court. DA investigators are usually experienced in writing reports and doing investigations and they can help deputies do those, having a laptop and getting things done on the spot. As far as I know right now, the District Attorney's Office does not respond to crime scenes. There may be some instances where they have, but it's definitely not a policy. In my District Attorney's Office there'll be one phone number and each police officer and deputy will have that number and someone from the District Attorney's Office will answer it 24 hours a day just like the judges are on call. If there's a call for one of those serious crimes, someone will help. It just works out better.
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Matt Finnegan has been involved in law enforcement since he was 19 years old in 1991 when he worked as a civilian assistant for the State University Police at CSU Chico and interned with the Butte County District Attorney's Office. He completed his final internship at the United States Marshall's Office in San Francisco in 1994. After graduating from Chico State University he went on to graduate from the California Fish and Game Warden Academy in 1995 and the United States Border Patrol Academy in 1996 where he served as federal law enforcement professional. He lives in Ukiah with his wife Julie Zaina Finnegan, an Ukiah native, and their four year old daughter Katie Lou. “I love Mendocino County and I plan on being here for a long time,” Finnegan concluded.

For more information go to www.mattfinneganforda.com

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