(Bay City News and KQED) San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi pleaded guilty today to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge in connection with the domestic violence case involving his wife.
Mirkarimi, 50, appeared in court this morning after agreeing to the plea deal with prosecutors, who dropped three other misdemeanor charges related to a Dec. 31 incident in which he allegedly grabbed and bruised the arm of his wife, Eliana Lopez, during an argument.
The D.A.'s office announced the following details of the plea arrangement:
Mirkarimi, in his plea agreement, agreed to 3 years probation, 100 hours community service, 52 weeks of domestic violence classes, $400 domestic violence fine, parenting or family counseling per Adult Probation Department’s recommendation, pay standard court fines and fees, and will waive any and all future appellate rights. The stay away order remains in full force and effect subject to a Family court order.
In addition, the District Attorney was steadfast in his requirement for Mirkarimi to issue a public apology to Ivory Madison and her family for the public scrutiny they endured. “Domestic violence is an underreported crime that happens behind closed doors. Ivory Madison and other witnesses should be commended for their courage, “said District Attorney Gascón. “If we are committed to ending domestic violence, we in law enforcement must continue to encourage witnesses to come forward because it is the right thing to do for the victim, for the community and for our city.”
"For the last two months, this case has caused my family, my department, the sheriff's department, and the city great turmoil, pain and disappointment," Mirkarimi said outside of court. "This plea allows us to move forward."
He said, "I intend to return to the business of running one of the finest sheriff's departments in the nation, of mending my family and raising my son Theo in a safe and happy home."
Mirkarimi said he will comment further after the sentencing next week.
Mirkarimi will not be allowed to carry a weapon while the order is in effect, district attorney's office spokesman Omid Talai said.
While today's developments would seem to provide a legal resolution to a case that has transfixed the city -- or its political establishment and media, at least -- Mirkarimi's political problems may not be over. Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement today calling the situation "serious and troubling."
"One of our top law enforcement officials," Lee said, "has now pleaded guilty to an unexpected and very serious charge that has introduced a new set of legal issues that must be thoroughly reviewed. I am working with legal counsel to review the facts and determine what options are available to me under the City charter."
Mirkarimi had initially pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness charges, accusations that were denied by Lopez, who refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
But the attorneys for Mirkarimi and Lopez were denied in repeated efforts in court to exclude as evidence a 55-second video of Lopez recorded by a neighbor in which she reportedly cried while pointing to the bruise on her arm.
Peter Keane, professor of law at Golden Gate University, told KQED's Mina Kim that the deal "was a practical and prudent move on the part of Mirkarimi. The evidence against him was very strong and there was a good likelihood that he would have been convicted of the abuse charges. Having convictions for spousal abuse and endangering a child would have carried a tremendous stigma against him and would also likely have called for some sort of substantial punishment beyond what it will be for the false imprisonment plea he put in today."
Keane said he thought the case had been swinging the prosecution's way, and that may have encouraged the Mirkarimi team to cut a deal.
"I think a lot had to do with the rulings relating to the evidence that would be allowed in the case. The fact that the videotape was going to be allowed in, and that the friend that Ms. Lopez had spoken with [Ivory Madison] was going to be allowed to testify – those aspects of the evidence were very strong and I think Mirkarimi and his attorneys realized that for the best possible outcome, they'd better attempt to reach some sort of deal while they still have leverage, before the case starts going forward."
(Update: The Bay Guardian's Tim Redmond says "people close to the sheriff" told him that Mirkarimi copped the plea "when it became clear that he was losing every single motion around the admissibility of evidence, even when he and his attorney, Lidia Stiglich, were convinced they were right on the merits -- and when it was clear from juror surveys that virtually everyone in town had read the salacious press accounts and it was impossible to find a neutral jury -- he decided he had no choice.")
Keane said it was not uncommon for defendants to plead guilty to a different charge than what they had originally been accused of. He said the charge of false imprisonment was related to the allegations in the police report that Mirkarimi had grabbed Lopez and attempted to prevent her from leaving. "When you restrain someone of their liberty, you keep them from doing what they want in terms of freedom of mobility -- that's enough for the charge of false imprisonment. Even if it was just a momentary thing."
Keane thought it was a good deal for Mirkarimi, "because he was facing considerable punishment and stigma had he been convicted of the abuse charges."
"Yet at the same time it's a reasonable call for the prosecutor in this situation to look at it and say there wasn't any terrific injury; there was indeed abuse, but it's not something we typically see in a spousal abuse charge. It's an indication of a one-time incident. [So the charge] is proportional to the incident."
Keane thought it unlikely that Mirkarimi would be removed from office through the city's ethics process.
"My prediction is he'll probably serve out his four years, because the only alternative to that would be for the mayor to institute proceedings to remove him, which would require a trial before the board of supervisors, with the supervisors in effect sitting as a court and the president of the board presiding like a judge. We saw that back in the 1970s with airport commissioner Joe Mazzola, and it turned out to be a very unwieldy kind of circus. And you also need a supermajority to vote for removal – Mirkarimii has many friends on that board. So I think it's unlikely Mayor Ed Lee will institute those proceedings."
However, Executive Director of La Casa le las Madres, Kathy Black told Mina Kim that is exactly what she would like to see happen. The anti-domestic violence group made headlines last month when it put up a billboard referencing Mirkarimi's comment that the incident in question was a "private matter, a family matter,"
"Now that it's gone through the justice system, it needs to go through the political system, through the mayor's office," Black said, "to be looked at to see whether it should go to the ethics commission. It needs to go through that process. Then the city and county, and the citizens of San Francisco, can feel that it's gone through the right process.
"It seems like a stretch to me that he would be able to execute his duties as sheriff and have all these domestic violence stipulations attached to his plea deal."
Black said she was satisified with the legal resolution.
"I think that the legal system has done its job. I think that in misdemeanor domestic violence cases, these kinds of pleas are not uncommon, and in this deal there are some important pieces that satisfy the issue. One is the continued stay-away order, three years probation, a hundred hours of community service, the 52-week batterers intervention program, parenting classes and counseling, and the apology to the witnesses."
Minouche Kandel, who works on domestic violence cases for Bay Area Legal Aid, said she thinks Mirkarimi should step down. "This is not the end of the story. This resolves the criminal case, but I think it remains troubling for the sheriff's department to be led by a person convicted of falsely imprisoning his wife -- the primary purpose for the sheriff's depart,emt is to imprison people, and here you have someone who's been convicted of false imprisonment.
"I also want to add, one things that makes the sheriff's department unique is that they provide a lot of programming in the area of domestic violence. They have programs for batterers in the jails; they have a survivor restoration empowerment project. To have someone who's been convicted of falsely imprisoning his wife in charge of a deptarment providing those services is problematic.
"The city leaders have said they want to wait for the resolution of the criminal case, now we have the guilty plea. So I don't think they need to wait any more to refer this case to the ethics commission."
Update 2:42 p.m. This statement from Mayor Ed Lee seems to indicate he will at least consider an ethics investigation in light of today's guilty plea:
“This clearly remains serious and troubling for our City. The Sheriff, one of our top law enforcement officials, has now pleaded guilty to an unexpected and very serious charge that has introduced a new set of legal issues that must be thoroughly reviewed. I am working with legal counsel to review the facts and determine what options are available to me under the City charter.
I understand the troubling nature that this guilty plea raises, given the Sheriff’s role in overseeing and incarcerating criminals in our county jails.
I intend to make a decision based on all of the facts as quickly as possible.”