Arlington, VA

(Updated at 3 p.m.) Dozens of local attorneys have signed a blistering letter criticizing the tactics of prosecutors in Arlington.

The letter — signed by criminal defense and civil rights lawyers — comes as Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, the county’s top prosecutor, is engaged in a primary election battle.

The two-page letter is signed by 109 attorneys who say the county treats minorities and people with mental illnesses unfairly. Stamos, however, says its a “political hit job” for her re-election campaign.

A section of the two-page letter, which was sent to ARLnow, reads:

We are concerned that nearly 98% of felony convictions in Arlington are the result of the defendant pleading guilty, exceeding the rate in all local jurisdictions (Alexandria: 91%; Fairfax/Loudoun: 93%) and even in the federal courts (97%). We are concerned that the low incidence of trials in Arlington is mainly due to overcharging and the fear of harsh consequences if a defendant does not accept a plea bargain.

We are concerned that Arlington convicts defendants of felonies at more than twice the rate of neighboring jurisdictions, despite its very low crime rate. We are worried that this reflects a culture of overcriminalization.

The county’s chief public defender, Brad Haywood is one of the signatories. He told ARLnow today (Friday) that, “the policies and practices of the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office are precisely those that have led our criminal justice system to where it is now: broken and in need of change.”

“Among all Northern Virginia jurisdictions, there is a consensus among defense attorneys that Arlington is the most difficult environment in which to obtain fair results, and the fact that so many attorneys were willing to take a professional risk by putting their names on this letter bears that out,” Haywood said.

“I think I have to say that this effort and the timing of it is nothing more than a political hit job,” Stamos told ARLnow.

Stamos is running for re-election this year and is faced by Democratic challenger, former public defender Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. The two attorneys recently debated about convictions for first-time marijuana possession and other criminal justice hot topics, which have also entered the national political conversation.

“I can’t speak to the rates of felony convictions in other jurisdiction,” Stamos said today in response to the defense bar’s letter. “But a high percent of felony convictions in our District Court is a good thing because it means we’re not indicting cases that we don’t have the evidence to prove.”

The letter also criticizes Stamos for her policy on the discovery process that allows defense attorneys access to their client’s case records before a trial:

We are concerned that the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s discovery policy, which prohibits the use of technology to obtain copies of police reports and other documents, places unique and arbitrary restrictions on the discovery process, making it needlessly difficult for defense attorneys to be prepared for trial. We believe that real open file discovery would make the process more fair for defendants and make the criminal process much more reliable and efficient.

Stamos has said that the policy relies on manual discovery because that helps protect victims’ privacy and safety. As part of her campaign, Stamos has highlighted the endorsements she’s received from 50 local attorneys.

The letter is not the first time the public defender’s office has criticized the prosecutor for what he says is unjust application of the law. When ARLnow investigated a little-known provision allowing law enforcement to jail “habitual drunkards” in January, Haywood said the county should, “stop pretending we’re making the situation better by locking sick people away so the public can’t see them.”

A few months earlier, he also called Stamos’ cash bail reform “misleading.”

Today, Stamos accused Haywood of circulating the letter because he was “all about defeating” her campaign in the upcoming June primary by supporting Dehghani-Tafti.

Stamos also had words for the other 108 attorneys who signed, saying that “more than half the individual on the list don’t practice law in Arlington with any regularity if at all. And they don’t know me and I don’t them.”

“I’ve been here just as long as Theo Stamos has,” said private defense attorney Terry Adams who first worked in Arlington as a deputy Sheriff in 1987 and who also signed the letter. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence. It’s unnecessary. It’s cruel.”

Adams was referring to the Arlington clients he says he’s had who end up with criminal records for non-violent, first-time possession of marijuana when other nearby jurisdictions like Fairfax typically waive charges for community service instead.

Tafti has said she would not prosecute such cases, a position Stamos said was “fundamentally anti-democratic.”

“I don’t think as a prosecutor I have the ability to disavow a whole group of [laws],” the Commonwealth’s Attorney said today, and referenced the fact her office eliminated jail time for such cases and set up a Drug Court to divert certain cases.

The letter also highlights what the signees say are racial disparities in Arlington’s justice system.

“We are concerned that although only 9% of Arlington is African-American, black people represent nearly half of those charged with driving on a suspended license, and nearly 60% of those charged with marijuana possession in Arlington,” the letter says.

Another private defense attorney who signed the letter, Shawn Stout, told ARLnow he now works in Manassas but lived in and tried cases in Arlington for ten years.

“I signed this letter because I have concerns about how Ms. Stamos, and signers of a previously publicized letter supporting her, have misrepresented the culture and policies of that office and the state of justice in Arlington County,” said Stout.

“During this campaign, Ms. Stamos has conveniently tried to paint herself as a reformer, when her well-documented history is as anything but,” said Stout, adding that he hopes Dehghani-Tafti is a “true reformer.”

“The citizens of Arlington will get to choose whether they want to stay where they are based on the numbers in the letter or whether they want to move forward and be more humane in how they want to deal with these issues,” said Adams.

“I’m not going to apologize for enforcing the law and making sure folks are held accountable,” said Stamos.

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