(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.
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.”
Dogs Die in Seven Corners Fire — Two dogs perished in a Sunday morning house fire in the Seven Corners area, although three dogs and four people were able to make it out of the burning home okay. Arlington County firefighters responded to the scene, assisting Fairfax County units in battling the blaze. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue]
Water Main Break in Fairlington — Parts of north Fairlington had low or no water pressure for most of the day Monday due to a water main break. [Twitter]
Remembering Obama’s Local Bookstore Visit — Even four years later, not a day goes by when One More Page Books owner Eileen McGervey doesn’t hear from someone about the time in 2012 when President Obama visited her store on Small Business Saturday. She recounted how it happened recently on a local public radio show. [WAMU]
Carpool Still Hanging On — Once believed to be closing this fall to make way for a redevelopment, popular Ballston bar Carpool is now likely to remain open through March 2017, co-owner Mark Handwerger tells ARLnow.com. The Washington Business Journal reported last month that the redevelopment has hit a bit of a snag.
Yorktown Senior Joins Chamber — Mark Yates, Jr., a senior at Yorktown High School and the founder of a lawn care business, has joined the Arlington Chamber of Commerce as a member after participating in the Chamber’s Young Entrepreneurs Academy. [Arlington Chamber]
Jonathan Kinney Honored — Prominent local attorney Jonathan Kinney was honored by the Arlington Community Foundation earlier this month, in front of a record luncheon crowd of nearly 400. Despite his low-key demeanor, Kinney, a land use and estate planning attorney, was described as “Arlington’s most indispensable citizen.” [InsideNova]
Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf
VDOT Holds HOT Lane Meeting — Last night VDOT gave the first formal public presentation of its plan to expand the I-395 HOV lanes and convert them to High Occupancy Toll lanes. The meeting was held at Wakefield High School and addressed issues from toll pricing to transit improvements to sound walls. [WTOP, Fox 5]
Bike-on-Bike Crashes Problematic for the Law — A new article asserts that Arlington County Police normally do not file reports for bike-on-bike crashes. “This is a bike accident. Life happens,” an officer reportedly told a victim after one recent incident. Incomplete or nonexistent police reports have frustrated victims and attorneys seeking legal redress — and led to the hiring of private investigators who try to gather evidence and find witnesses. [Washingtonian]
Disability Advocates Protest in Arlington — Disability rights advocates made their frustrations personal yesterday by protesting in front of the Arlington home of Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division. [Disability Scoop]
Proposal: Allow Older Cabs in Arlington — The Arlington County Board on Saturday is expected to consider a policy change that would allow older cabs on the road, among other changes. Currently, cabs entering service may be no older than two years old and then must be retired after reaching seven years old or 350,000 miles. Recognizing advances in vehicle reliability, the new policy would do away with the two year provision and set the maximum age of cabs at 10 years old. [Arlington County]
Free Donuts for Lawyers Today — It’s Be Kind to Lawyers Day and to mark the occasion Sugar Shack Donuts on Columbia Pike is offering a free “house donut” to lawyers today. Sugar Shack is also beginning a promotion that will give select customers free donuts to distribute to their favorite local teachers. “To participate, folks just need to use the hashtag #Treats4Teach to tell us on Facebook or Twitter why they should be picked to deliver donuts to their local school teachers and to which school,” said a press release.
Nice Weather at Last — After this morning’s rain, expect clearing skies and pleasant weather that should stretch into next week. [Twitter]
Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick
NORAD Flyover Exercise Tonight — NORAD will conduct a flyover exercise tonight that may be noticed by Arlington residents. The exercise will take place between midnight and 2:00 a.m. [Twitter]
Bean Kinney Attorney’s Attack Detailed in Court — In court testimony in Fairfax County, attorney Leo Fisher and his wife, Susan Duncan, described the vicious home invasion attack allegedly carried out by the husband of an attorney Fisher fired at the Arlington law firm of Bean, Kinney & Korman. Fisher said the man “slit my throat” and Duncan described being stabbed repeatedly in the upper body and being nearly shot in the head. [Washington Post]
No ‘Real Solution’ Yet for Pike Transit — An urban design and transportation writer is alleging that Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt has yet to propose an effective alternative to the planned Columbia Pike streetcar system he helped to scuttle. [Greater Greater Washington]
More School Board Endorsements — In the race for the Democratic endorsement for Arlington School Board, candidates have picked up some key endorsements in the past week. Former School Board member and current County Board member Libby Garvey says she’s endorsing Sharon Dorsey, as is former School Board member Frank Wilson. Reid Goldstein, meanwhile, has picked up the endorsements of County Board Chair Mary Hynes and former School Board member Ed Fendley.
Flickr pool photo by Alves Family
Zimmerman Pushes Back Last Day — County Board member Chris Zimmerman’s last day in office will be Feb. 10, rather than late January as originally planned. As a result, the special election to replace him on the Board will likely have to be held in early April. [Sun Gazette]
Henry Elementary Wins Accolade — Arlington’s Patrick Henry Elementary School, in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, has been recognized as a Title I Distinguished School. “Henry is one of 55 schools honored for raising the academic achievement of economically disadvantaged students,” Arlington Public Schools said in an email.
Arlingtonian Tapped as Solicitor General — Arlington resident Stuart Raphael has been named as Attorney General Mark Herring’s pick for Virginia Solicitor General. Raphael, a UVA law school graduate, is husband to Arlington School Board Chair Abby Raphael. [Sun Gazette]
Va. Bars Can Now Advertise Happy Hours — Starting Jan. 29, restaurants in Virginia will be allowed to advertise the fact that they offer happy hour specials. That’s the result of new Va. Dept. of Alcohol Beverage Control rules. However, restaurants are still not allowed to advertise the price of the drinks on special. Other alcohol-related “blue laws” that remain in effect in Virginia include a ban on open bars with unlimited drinks and a ban on serving mixed drinks by the pitcher. [Washington Post]
ART Bus Schedule Changes Now in Effect — Schedule changes went into effect today (Monday) for Arlington Transit bus routes 41, 42, 45 and 77. [Arlington Transit]
Howze Wins Straw Poll — On Saturday, Arlington County Board hopeful Alan Howze won an informal Democratic straw poll at a legislative session “send-off” for Del. Alfonso Lopez. Howze captured 59 percent of the vote, while fellow Democratic candidates Cord Thomas and Peter Fallon garnered 25 percent and 16 percent respectively. [Alfonso Lopez]
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is looking for a few good barristers. Here’s the listing from Volunteer Arlington:
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness, seeks volunteer attorneys and law students to provide general legal information and referrals (not legal advice) to people affected by mental illness issues.
NAMI’s 1,100+ affiliates engage in advocacy, research, support and education. Its members are families, friends and people living with major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.
Volunteers must have law degree or be in law school, have good oral and written communication skills, sensitivity to people affected by mental illness issues, and conscientious work habits. Must be available at least 4 hours a week between 10 am and 6 pm weekdays for, ideally, at least 6 months.
NAMI is located at 3803 N. Fairfax Drive, in Courthouse. Anyone interested in this opportunity should contact Maggie Scheie-Lurie at 703-516-0689.