OC DA vows to charge some burglary suspects with hate crimes

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Wednesday that as part of a new policy to crack down on burglaries and smash-and-grab robberies, he will charge some defendants with hate crimes for heists "targeting the Asian community."

Spitzer also threatened to publicly call out local judges he accuses of giving reduced punishments for some defendants, saying the jurists are elected officials and "the public has a right to know."

Spitzer said he has formed a unit within his office -- the Home Invasion Eradication Interdiction Strike Team -- to focus on burglaries, commercial burglaries, home-invasion robberies and smash-and-grab heists.

The new strike team has four "veteran prosecutors who are responsible for single-handedly babysitting these cases," Spitzer said.

Over the past year, about 140 defendants have been charged with those types of crimes, including 24 from five separate burglary crews in the past two weeks, the district attorney said.

Hate crime sentencing enhancements have been included in charges against seven defendants accused of burglaries targeting the Asian community, he said.

"That's a unique legal theory," Spitzer said. "Some of these burglars are specifically targeting Asians ... because they believe they have large amounts of cash."

He acknowledged it was a "significant, aggressive legal theory," but said, "I'm all in because a hate crime enhance makes things very, very serious. I hope my colleagues around the state do the same thing."

UC Irvine law professor Katie Tinto told City News Service that Spitzer's new policy "`raises several concerns." She said it relies on "stereotypes to suggest why people commit crimes, which is problematic."

Tinto suggested it won't be easy for prosecutors to prove the hate crimes.

"It would be difficult to find evidence of a particular defendant's mental state in committing a burglary," Tinto said. "I think it's also dangerous to increase punishments as a way to deter future crime because studies have shown increasing the sentencing length has very little if any deterrent effect."

She added that, "I think it has the potential to confuse true hate crimes and use the phrase as a hammer to justify plea bargains or scare people into more serious punishment, but it doesn't address the underlying conduct in burglaries or hate crimes. These are two separate problems and both need to be addressed. Punishing defendants longer doesn't address the root of either problem."

Spitzer, as he has often done in the past, railed against state lawmakers and criminal justice reform efforts that he argued increase crimes by lessening the deterrent effect. Spitzer noted how defendants were receiving "unprecedented deals" during the COVID-19 pandemic as court systems were restricted in the numbers of trials and hearings that could be held.

"COVID is over," Spitzer said, adding that many judges "now think we're operating in a COVID environment. ... I want to make it unequivocally clear that this is not the new bar in Orange County."

The county's top prosecutor also noted that with many more residents now returning to offices, their homes are less occupied, providing an open invitation to thieves. Also, he argued, the bad guys figure they'll get a cozy deal in court now.

"I am so disgusted by what is happening to our cases in court," Spitzer said.

Spitzer criticized some judges for using their discretion to not apply prior strike convictions when sentencing some defendants.

"My head is spinning," he said. "I'm daily flabbergasted when judges strike strikes... I'm not saying it's all judges, but there are a handful who strike strikes to clear out cases and I'm going to start naming these judges... Judges are elected officials. They're beholden to the public and the public has a right to know."

Kostas Kalaitzidis, a spokesman for the Orange County Superior Court system, said, "The District Attorney should know that ethical rules of court bar the court from addressing comments made on cases before the court."

Tinto told City News Service, "We're in dangerous territory if (Spitzer) uses his office to criticize a judge who makes decisions he doesn't like."

"When we start doubting judges' ability to fairly look at evidence and deciding an appropriate punishment it's very dangerous to call out particular judges who exercise their discretion, which is the job we ask them to do -- to exercise their judgment at sentencing," she said. "And to call out judges for reducing punishment or giving out less than what the district attorneys wanted is very concerning because it reduces the independence of the judiciary, which is a key part of our justice system."

Spitzer also warned that some Chilean nationals are coming to the country on the Electronic System for Travel Authorization program to commit crimes here and then get low or no bail because they lack a criminal history record.

Spitzer described one home invasion in Fountain Valley in which four masked intruders pistol-whipped a man and punched his wife and held her at gunpoint with their 12-year-old and 14-year-old children watching. He said the suspects were arrested following a high-speed chase with police in a vehicle they stole from the home.

Brea Police Chief Aam Hawley said he has been spearheading a nine-month investigation that included one burglary in which the suspects noticed the homeowners had a large safe, but couldn't carry it away or bust into it. He said they later returned when the residents were home and when they still couldn't force the residents to open the safe because they did not know the combination they took it and then posed on it later for pictures, Hawley said.

Brea's investigation led to 21 arrests that he said "serves a strong message that we will not rest until justice is served."

Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee recalled how 20 years ago burglars stole Christmas presents from his home and said he empathized with burglary victims. He advised residents to be sure to lock all their doors and windows, install a security system and work to communicate with neighbors.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley noted that many of her constituents live in affluent communities and are anxious about break-ins. She said burglars broke into one San Juan Capistrano home while a young girl was home.

Irvine Police Chief Michael Kent said a 20-year-old woman was dragged out of a shower by two masked burglars in June of 2021 and ordered her to identify all of the valuables in the house before making off with about $12,000 worth.

"I can't imagine how terrified she must have been," Kent said.