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District Attorney Terence Hallinan announced Tuesday that he would prosecute as many of the nearly 2,300 war protesters as possible that were arrested in the past week, sending a message that the city will not tolerate the mayhem inflicted on San Francisco streets. The move surprised defense attorneys, who said they had the impression from a meeting last week with a DA representative that charges would not be filed against most of the protesters. “That wasn’t what I was expecting,” said solo Rachel Lederman, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a volunteer organization that is helping to coordinate free legal services for protesters. Hallinan’s decision also appears to run counter to his liberal image. But Hallinan, who is running for re-election in the fall and has historically been supported by progressive voters, said he isn’t concerned about political fallout from his decision. The intention is to prosecute everyone, but “there may be cases in which charges will have to be dropped for lack of information,” said DA spokesman Mark MacNamara. “The people that did violent stuff and damaged property, that’s no problem, they will be prosecuted,” said Hallinan. The rest will be charged with infractions, he said. “People can pay a fine, or they can come and oppose it.” Bobbie Stein, a San Francisco solo criminal defense attorney and member of the National Lawyers Guild, questioned the cost of prosecuting people charged with nonviolent crimes. “They’re going to exacerbate the incredible costs to the city by prosecuting these cases that are ridiculous to prosecute,” said Stein. “Why do that? You’ve got to cut your losses.” The city estimates the law enforcement cost to manage the protesters at about $900,000 a day, said Sgt. Neville Gittens. The DA’s office hopes to recoup some of those costs through fines assessed on the protesters, MacNamara said. “It costs money to get the money.” MacNamara acknowledged that the city is deeply in debt and faces severe budget cuts. “The question is, what’s the most efficient, cost-effective way that we can process these cases?” he said. “Not only to collect money, obviously, but also to make it clear that we will not tolerate in this city people who seem to have no regard for the people who live here.” Lederman said she was expecting that Hallinan wouldn’t file charges against most of the protesters based on his “general practice” and on an impression National Lawyers Guild representatives received at a meeting Friday with a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. Stein said she had specifically asked at the meeting if the district attorney’s office would charge protesters with infractions, “and the answer was no.” Assistant District Attorney Michael Menesini, whom Stein said was the DA’s representative at the meeting, could not be reached for comment. The district attorney has decided on a three-tiered approach to the prosecutions. People accused of more serious crimes, such as causing bodily injury or property damage, will be tried in superior court, according to a press statement released Tuesday. Sentences for more serious offenses will range from fines to time in county jail or even state prison, the statement said. Protesters charged with lesser crimes, such as misdemeanor battery or resisting arrest, will go to commissioner’s court, also known as traffic court, where most penalties will be fines. In most cases that means $96, but fines could go as high as $1,000. Like a traffic ticket, some protesters will be able to pay the fine rather than go to court, the statement said. The district attorney’s office also plans to make use of the city’s community courts, a pilot program that uses panels of three neighborhood volunteers to pass judgment with fines or community service, usually on “quality of life” crimes. Protesters have the right to at least a hearing, and don’t have to agree to go to the community courts, MacNamara said. The district attorney’s office has been filing charges against some protesters since January, but the majority of protesters from the latest round of arrests will hit the system in late April through the end of May, said MacNamara. People from as far away as Toronto have contacted the district attorney’s office to urge either leniency or prosecution, said MacNamara. “I’m hearing about 50-50 each way,” he estimated. In the early 1990s, then-District Attorney Arlo Smith filed charges against the majority of the 1,600 people arrested during Gulf War protests. Only a tiny percentage of those who refused to plead out their cases and opted for trial were convicted. Evidence problems were the primary reason cited by judges who acquitted protesters or threw out their cases. Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law, said the city has handled protesters “in different ways over the years,” but Hallinan’s current plan sounds like a mistake. “To go ahead and clog the system with hundreds and maybe thousands of infractions doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I think it would turn out to be more expensive in the long run.” But Keane doesn’t think the move will hurt Hallinan’s political aspirations. “By the time the election comes up, everyone will have forgotten this.”

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