Sanam Mehrnia hopes to shake things up in the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s race
September 21, 2016
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series profiling the candidates for the 5th Judicial District Attorney's Office. The second installment on Sept. 29 will feature Republican candidate Bruce Carey. The third installment on Oct. 6 will focus on Democratic incumbent Bruce Brown.
In an election cycle full of self-described "non-politicians," district attorney candidate Sanam Mehrnia certainly fits the bill. From her tiny office in downtown Frisco that's used by a raft guiding company three months out of the year, she spoke with a candor that was almost disarming.
"I don't even have political aspirations or do any prepping for this stuff," she said, turning to the wooden table that takes up nearly the entire width of the space. "I'm just sick of complaining and not being able to do anything."
Lately, her office has gotten busier. She said more and more clients have been rolling in since she announced her candidacy with a pledge to "bring humanity back into justice."
"People come to me because they hear my message and they know I'm the right attorney for them," she said.
That message is fairly simple: Colorado's 5th Judicial District — comprising Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties — over-criminalizes minor offenses, particularly substance abuse. This is a charge that has been leveled at jurisdictions nationwide in recent years as people of all political stripes have started to question the doctrine of mass-incarceration.
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It's not exactly what you'd expect from someone aspiring to be top prosecutor — they tend to stress a hard-nosed approach to justice and a tough-on-crime attitude. Unlike typical DA candidates, however, Mehrnia has spent her entire career on the defendants' side of the courtroom.
Playing defense in the Fifth
Mehrnia graduated from Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in 2009. Immediately afterward, she worked for the public defender in Phoenix, then moved on to practice criminal defense in Denver. She started working for Breckenridge lawyer Todd Barson in 2013, then went solo with her practice in Frisco last year.
She offers a number of stories from her years litigating in Summit County that she says illustrate a tendency by the DA to charge offenses to the maximum in every case. But there's one in particular that sticks with her: an incident where a man was charged with reckless endangerment, unlawful ownership of a dangerous animal and felony child abuse after his dog bit a 6-year-old in Breckenridge last year, causing serious injury.
The man faced 14 years in prison for the incident, which Mehrnia says was inappropriate. The DA's office offered the man a deal of five years for a guilty plea, but he and Mehrnia decided to go to trial. She also alleges that the DA withheld a Summit County Animal Control report — which she thinks provides mitigating information — until a month before trial.
According to Mehrnia, that discovery violation crippled the DA's case, and a couple of days before trial her client got a new deal: a guilty plea to possession of a dangerous animal that will be dismissed after he pays restitution to the victim's family. The charge, even if dismissed, will remain on his record.
"I don't think I ever fought so hard for a case," she said. "I probably only made 10 bucks an hour on that, filing everything and never backing down. What happened to that kid was egregious."
District Attorney Bruce Brown countered that the defendant's dog had bitten another child just two days before the Breckenridge incident and that the injuries to the second child were very serious, costing thousands of dollars in medical bills and counseling. He also said that the animal control report was public and that it was "hard to imagine" the defendant didn't know about it.
"All facts are not known or available at the time a criminal charge is filed, but in this case additional facts were developed through our investigation resulting in a reduction of the charges to an appropriate level," he said in an email. "In this case, the fact that the defendant fled the scene impaired the ability of investigators to get the full story."
The levers of justice
Charging heavy and then negotiating a plea deal is so common in the U.S. that it's practically become standard procedure, although it wasn't always. Up until the Civil War, plea bargains were exceedingly rare, according to Jed Rakoff, a U.S. district judge writing in the New York Review of Books.
In the postbellum era, however, crime rates began to rise, and deals became a common way of easing the burden on the judicial system. Since then, plea rates have risen in fits and starts, usually in response to rising crime rates. Immediately after World War II, plea bargains accounted for 80 percent of felony cases that weren't dismissed; by 2013, that share was 97 percent.
These high rates are fairly consistent across the country, and it's unclear whether the 5th Judicial District's rates are significantly higher or lower than any other jurisdiction.
Still, Mehrnia feels that prosecutors in this district routinely charge people too aggressively and neglect other options — like restorative justice techniques and drug courts — in favor of prosecution, incarceration and plea deals. A major plank of her platform is to diversify how the DA deals with lower-level offenses. She stresses the efficacy of techniques like victim-offender reconciliation, community mediation and alternative sentencing for drug addicts.
"We know these strategies work, getting victims and offenders together and having them talk, getting drug users into treatment," she said. "And we've had community mediators deal with harassment cases in the past in Summit County, and they've been effective."
Mehrnia is an unconventional candidate in many ways, but perhaps most unusual is that she has no experience prosecuting. Becoming the district's top prosecutor would be a 180-degree turn, a fact she acknowledges.
"I sat down with a judge and we talked about it," she said. "It's going to be a transition, but the goal is ultimately the same: bringing humanity back to justice. As a prosecutor I could be more effective at that than a defense attorney chipping away at individual cases."
Brown, the incumbent, has a considerably longer resume on both sides of the law, as does his Republican challenger Bruce Carey, who's been practicing for 27 years and worked a stint at the DA's office in Eagle.
But if Mehrnia hasn't been working very long, she certainly has been working hard. She said she is singularly dedicated to her job. Her hobbies, primarily hiking, are ways for her to escape constant preoccupation with her cases.
"I hike really fast," she said, chuckling. "It helps me think about nothing else and take my mind off my cases for a little while."
She harbors few illusions about the uphill battle ahead of her, particularly because she's running as an independent. But as with many activist candidates, her run is as much about the message as it is about her own victory.
"If nothing else, I just want to get the message to the community," she said. "But that doesn't mean I don't also want to win."