Modesto looks to prosecute minor drug offenses after DA’s office stops handling them

Homeless belongings and junked items are pictured Friday August 17, 2018 in Legion Park in Modesto, Calif.
Homeless belongings and junked items are pictured Friday August 17, 2018 in Legion Park in Modesto, Calif.

Modesto is looking at prosecuting low-level drug offenses no longer being pursued by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office and expanding its prosecution of such city code violations as camping in parks, blighted property and illegal dumping.

City Attorney Adam Lindgren and City Manager Joe Lopez discussed this proposal, which includes hiring another senior deputy city attorney to prosecute these cases, during Monday’s City Council workshop for the city’s proposed 2019-20 budget year, which starts July 1.

Lopez said Modesto has had informal discussions with Stanislaus County about exploring this further, including how to pay for it. Lindgren’s PowerPoint presentation during the workshop said the “City is working with the County on possible funding for this position.”

The proposal is not included in the proposed 2019-20 budget, and Lopez said in an interview the proposal is in its very early stages and more discussions and work needs to take place.

County officials were circumspect about the city’s idea when contacted by The Bee.

District Attorney Birgit Fladager decided a couple of months ago that her office would no longer file charges for some low-level crimes, including drug possession or driving without a valid license, according to previous Bee coverage. She said that’s because her office does not have enough prosecutors to meet the workload and needed to focus on higher-level offenses.

She said her decision was temporary as she and county officials come up with a plan to hire and keep more prosecutors. “This is not something we wanted to do at all,” she said in March. “We just needed to take some steps to get immediate relief.”

Fladager said in a Monday email that city officials have not spoken with her about their idea and she expects her office will be able to hire additional prosecutors. “We have received authorization from the county in this budget year for additional prosecutor positions,” she said. “(O)nce we are able to hire and fill positions, I anticipate we will have sufficient staff to handle the caseload ... .”

Modesto would need permission from the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute minor drug offenses.

County CEO Jody Hayes said in a text Monday about the city’s potential plan: “We haven’t received a request. So I can’t comment until we’re in the loop. I’ve been told they want to talk to us about this.”

The proposal could cost nearly $200,000 annually, which includes the cost of a senior deputy city attorney, legal secretary and other expenses, according to Lindgren’s presentation at the workshop.

Lopez said the proposal is a way to deal with the quality-of-life and nuisance issues that bother residents and can lead to bigger problems if allowed to go unchecked. He said the attorney also could handle issues related to the cannabis dispensaries in the city. He added Modesto understands Fladager’s challenges and sees this as a way to support her.

Lindgren said the proposal combines Councilmen Doug Ridenour and Bill Zoslocki’s request for an additional city attorney to handle neighborhood code violations and a request from the Police Department for an attorney to handle the low-level offenses not being prosecuted by the DA’s office.