Former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown is appalled. He didn’t vote for Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, and he isn’t his biggest fan. But when he considers the prosecution of Mirkarimi for bruising his wife’s arm during a New Year’s Eve argument, he is appalled. People lose sight of what types of cases should be prosecuted, Brown told me last week, and Mirkarimi’s case is not one of them.
“Sometimes you have to break it off,” Brown said, as “Cyrus Vance did in New York City.” The Manhattan district attorney dropped rape charges against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn last year because prosecutors didn’t have a solid case.
San Francisco City Hall does not have a solid case against Mirkarimi, either.
For those of you who missed it, on New Year’s Day, Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez, got in a fight. He grabbed her arm and bruised it. Lopez complained to a neighbor, who videotaped her. Days later, the neighbor contacted police.
The episode unleashed the hounds of political correctness in San Francisco. Domestic violence advocates saw an opportunity to strike a blow for female empowerment. San Francisco police and City Hall didn’t want to appear soft on domestic abuse by an elected official. A city that doesn’t let government into the bedroom watched, even applauded, as the criminal justice system divided a family that wanted to stay together.
(Mirkarimi didn’t help his situation by not cooperating with a police investigation. Then again, as a gung-ho progressive, he never has been a favorite of local law enforcement.)
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon charged the sheriff with three misdemeanor counts: domestic violence, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. To my mind, Gascon should have dropped the charges. Grabbing your wife’s arm and bruising her does not constitute domestic violence — especially when the wife never pressed charges and denied that her husband abused her. The child endangerment count was ludicrous — based on the fact that the couple’s son was in the car during the fateful fight. Ditto the dissuading a witness charge — because Mirkarimi allegedly tried to stifle Lopez.
Gascon also filed a court order that forced Mirkarimi to move out and not speak to his wife. Eventually, the court allowed Mirkarimi visitation with his son.
In the meantime, as Mirkarimi’s reputation eroded and his legal bills mounted, he did what smart people do. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. He believed the plea would allow him to keep his gun (and his job) and, if he stuck to a counseling regimen, reunite with his family.
But Mirkarimi was wrong. Even though the fight occurred before Mirkarimi was sworn in as sheriff, Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi for “official misconduct” from his job and his pay.
The whole setup is “designed to break you along the way,” Mirkarimi told me. Until he fights back and wins, he has lost the elective office he worked hard to win. The courts won’t let him talk to his wife, who — this is ironic, as her declared wish to visit her native Venezuela with her son started the fight — took their son to Venezuela while she visits her sick father. When she returns in June, they will have been apart for five months and still will not be able to talk to each other.
Again, Brown is appalled at a system that would tear a family apart against its will, ostensibly for its own good. “A person charged with murder gets to see his wife,” Brown railed. “Dan White”— who murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 — “had conjugal visits.”
As I sat through Monday’s hearing of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, once again I was struck at how flimsy City Hall’s case is. When a man hurts his wife, there is a body of evidence — such as medical records and neighbors who heard things firsthand.
Yet Deputy City Attorney Peter J. Keith was angling for the ability to get Lopez to testify that Mirkarimi once told her that he was “powerful” as he tried to warn her against taking the couple’s son to Venezuela without his consent. The mayor actually included this exchange in his “official misconduct” complaint.
Mirkarimi denies that he told Lopez he is politically powerful, but who cares? San Francisco tax dollars shouldn’t be used to investigate what a couple said during an argument. The commission’s work is going to go on for months. Ethics Commission Chairman Ben Hur — yes, that’s his name — announced his panel won’t issue the rules for a mini-trial until May 29.
If San Francisco can do this to its sheriff — for an arm bruise — San Francisco can do this to anyone. I asked Mirkarimi whether he feels ravaged by the excesses of San Francisco’s political correctness. He answered warily, “In some ways, San Francisco has a very inflated image of itself being politically correct.”