San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson addresses the violence and break-in of our Nation’s Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. Will those who were stranded in the Capitol that day have a different viewpoint on the criminal justice system and law enforcement?

The unlawful events that occurred at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. last week were unacceptable.  Like most Americans, I watched the images from the January 6th break in at our Capitol Building and was horrified.  I thought of the lawmakers and staff of employees who work at the building, and the fear they and their families felt as it was occurring.  I thought of the elected officials who had their peace and security threatened. I thought of the Capitol police officers who stood on a wall to protect life and property.  It was, simply put, horrific and one of the saddest days of our Nation’s history.

Democracy has no place for violent, illegal conduct that places people and property at risk.  Our adherence to the rule of law is a commitment to protecting civil liberties and public safety for all citizens.  An abandonment of the rule of law foreswears this country’s foundations and is an act of war upon reason.

There is an appropriate, but unprecedented, widespread call from unlikely sources for the criminal justice system to prosecute the Capitol protestors “to the fullest extent of the law.”  The media and elected officials suddenly became concerned.  Violence was in their house.  It posed a threat to their sense of safety and security; it posed a threat to their careers and their families who depend on their careers.  They were and are, victims.   They were experiencing what the domestic violence victim fears every day when they fear that at any moment, they can be swept into a violent encounter with a person they love.  They feared the same way the child victim fears that anything they say or do can be met with a punch by a parent.  They feared the same way the store clerk who has been robbed at gunpoint fears.  Returning to their offices they must have felt a sense of having no security, no place to keep them safe- much like the residential burglary victim feels after the police have completed their investigation and leave them alone at their residence.  They feared much like police officers who are placed in deadly situations must fear.  They feared, and their families feared.

There were no calls to decrease Capitol Police resources or start the criminal justice system from scratch from politicians that day, or any day since.  There were no politicians tweeting links to pages designed to bail out capitol protestors.  The cries from the media and those politicians now include casting as wide a net as possible to ensure that anyone who was involved be prosecuted in as strong (and sometimes creative) a manner as possible.  There is finally a recognition of the collateral consequences of crime that every victim faces directly, like injury, fear and the financial cost of damage, and indirectly like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, COVID-19 and HIV transmission. There are even pleas for felony murder charges for the suspects connected to the deaths that occurred. 

District Attorney Jason Anderson
District Attorney Jason Anderson

The events at the Capitol, the suspects’ conduct, law enforcement’s response, and the sentiments of the victims have illuminated for many the normal process of criminal justice in counties across America, including San Bernardino.  While the events and personal conduct by many at the Capitol are atrocious and unacceptable, the process that is occurring in Washington, D.C., is not extraordinary. 

The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office engages in this process every day on behalf of any citizen in our county who is a victim of a crime.  We assist law enforcement in ensuring all investigative leads are followed in order to properly identify the correct suspect.  We then review the police reports and evidence to determine whether someone has committed a crime and whether we can prove that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Once we file charges, we determine the appropriate degree of severity based upon the defendant’s conduct, prior record, and impact the crime has had on the individual victim and on society.

While this process is hailed in Washington, D.C., and around the country, that same process is assailed in California by most California lawmakers, some elected District Attorneys, many Hollywood personalities, and professional athletes who have no experience as prosecutors or defense attorneys, or in the misery in which victims of crime are often hurled.  If the current criminal justice blueprint crafted by California lawmakers or the policies of a few District Attorneys was overlaid in Washington, D.C., far fewer suspects involved in the Capitol riots could be prosecuted.  And even those that were would receive a far less degree of punishment than they will in Washington, D.C.  In California, many of the crimes committed in Washington would be eligible for judicial diversion with no conviction or record that the events ever occurred.   Indeed, many of the lawless could never be identified, for although facial recognition technology could be of immense assistance to the police in identifying the suspects who assaulted the Capitol, California’s lawmakers have stripped law enforcement of that investigative tool.  Instead of focusing efforts on protecting all our citizens, California’s legislative and executive branches have repeatedly attacked prosecutors and law enforcement and made every effort to hobble our efforts to keep our communities safe.  The current California criminal justice scheme would result in very little criminal accountability amongst the Washington protestors.  Let that sink in.

Quote from District Attorney Jason Anderson found in article.

The rule of law cannot be relegated to a time, place and manner restriction.  In other words, lawmakers should not decide who, when, and why the full power of the criminal justice system should be utilized against suspects.  To engage in such capricious behavior is anathema to our basic moral and social constructs, lending itself to comparisons to the whims of a monarch.  No, the only just path is to treat those who believe they live outside the law the same no matter who they are, and no matter how highly publicized their crimes or victims, or by contrast, how unknown or powerless their targets.  Prosecutors are charged under our state constitution with the solemn duty of measuring proof and crime.  The decisions of prosecutors in our nation’s Capital differ from those made daily in San Bernardino County only by the level of media attention.  Our victims do not have a lectern with a fancy logo and access to television coverage.  They have us.

Violence, destruction, and crime to further any political or social agenda is abhorrent and evil.  Full stop.  Those who engage in such violence and destruction—whether in our American cities (which suffered over $1 billion in damage and accounted for at least 14 lives lost over the year 2020) or in our capitol building— should be held accountable by the justice system. 

In essence, every resident in our county is his or her own “Capitol.”  If that resident is vandalized, threatened, assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, financially victimized, murdered, or been the victim of any other crime our Office will apply the same process the authorities are applying in Washington.  Our Office does not do this because pundits call for accountability.  We do it because it is the right thing to do.

Our justice system is predicated on the notion that there is inherent value in everyone, that there is something of the transcendent in each of us. From revered celebrity or politician to the most heinous criminal imaginable every person has inalienable rights.  When we produce societies predicated on the great idea of the inherent value of everyone then we become free and capable of living meaningful and productive lives.  When a society seeks to erode the rule of law, or fashion a rule of law that only applies to some and not others, that society is doomed to failure.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Brown contributed to this article.