Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

San Diego DA Says She Won’t Take Law Enforcement Donations — But They’re Still Fueling Her Campaign

San Diego Interim District Attorney Summer Stephan
(Still from campaign video)

San Diego DA Says She Won’t Take Law Enforcement Donations — But They’re Still Fueling Her Campaign


Immediately after a heated debate last Thursday that focused on police accountability, the criminalization of homelessness, and the use of gang databases, interim San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan spoke to a handful of reporters in a room not far from the stage at the Chula Vista library. There, she fielded several questions about the impact that campaign contributions have had on the race, amid reports that a PAC funded by George Soros, a billionaire pushing for criminal justice reform nationwide, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of her opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright.

During the contentious campaign, Stephan has been positioned — and often touted herself — as “law enforcement’s choice.” But, she insisted to the reporters that night, her campaign hadn’t received any financial benefits from that support.

“Police unions have not given me campaign donations and I don’t accept campaign donations from my own team,” Stephan said, responding to a question from The Appeal. “Because I want to be very ethical when I promote them or do anything. Nor have I accepted donations from victims’ groups that we have contracts with.”

And while it’s true that Stephan’s campaign itself hasn’t accepted donations from law enforcement unions, The Appeal has found that political action committees associated with local law enforcement groups have already spent at least $313,000 to support Stephan, and almost $5,000 on negative advertisements against her opponent.

The PAC that has given the greatest amount of support to Stephan, San Diegans Against Crime, is associated with her own office. Sponsored by the San Diego Deputy District Attorneys Association, the group is comprised mostly of her own staff members (the La Mesa Police Officers Association PAC recently contributed $5,000 to it as well). The PAC has spent over $277,000 on Stephan’s re-election campaign on signs, television commercials, mailers, and polling. In contrast, Stephan’s own campaign has so far only spent just over $214,000 in 2018, according to its last filing.

Other spending in support of Stephan from law enforcement includes $12,700 from the San Diego Police Officers Association PAC, and the Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC, which has already spent $23,630.

Stephan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In San Diego County, individual donations to campaigns are capped at $800. Political parties can only contribute $51,850 to campaigns for county-wide offices. But the amount that political action committees can spend on local elections is unlimited, making those PACs, which both campaigns have taken advantage of, an easy way for groups like law enforcement unions or criminal justice reform groups to make a major impact on the race.

Law enforcement unions’ spending on district attorney campaigns has come under scrutiny across California in the lead-up to the June 5 election, especially because prosecutors who accept donations, or have received the support of law enforcement PACs, have repeatedly declined to press charges against officers who shoot unarmed civilians or engage in other forms of misconduct.

In Alameda County, incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley accepted $10,000 from the Fremont police union this past November while her office was investigating three members of the union for their roles in two separate fatal shootings. By February, all three officers were cleared of wrongdoing. In Sacramento, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has received $420,000 in campaign contributions over the course of her three campaigns, according to The Intercept, including $13,000 in campaign donations from two local law enforcement unions just days after Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Sacramento police officers in his grandparents’ backyard.

San Diego has had its own recent spate of police shootings. At an early March press conference, Stephan announced that she had cleared four separate sheriff’s deputies of criminal charges in the killings of four civilians in separate incidents in 2017. Ten days after that, the San Diego Deputy Sheriff’s Association spent over $10,000 in support of Stephan.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s campaign, which has focused on ending cash bail and increasing police accountability, has received $600,000 in support so far from a PAC funded by Soros.

Whether campaign donations from law enforcement truly impact the conduct of a district attorney is an open question, explained Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina and director of that school’s Prosecutors and Politics Project. But the perception of what that money is trying to achieve cuts both ways when it comes to campaigns.

“In some counties, incumbent DAs are facing criticism for accepting money from law enforcement unions when those incumbent DAs have to make decisions about whether to charge officers involved in use-of-force cases, and some challengers have been criticized for taking money from groups outside of their jurisdiction,” Hessick said. “The controversy in San Diego is playing out in counties across the country.”

The Appeal is an editorially independent project of Tides Advocacy and does not receive funding from any Soros-funded PAC or Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Tides Advocacy sponsors numerous other projects, however, some of which do receive funding from the Open Society Policy Center.

Rhode Island Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Faces an Unusual Foe: A Democratic Attorney General

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin
@AGKilmartin / Twitter

Rhode Island Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Faces an Unusual Foe: A Democratic Attorney General


Law enforcement’s power to seize property suspected of being used in criminal activity regardless of whether the owner has been convicted of a crime has generated mounting public scrutiny of the practice, known as civil asset forfeiture. Both Nebraska and New Mexico have abolished civil asset forfeiture in recent years, and the Department of Justice under the Obama administration imposed limits on a federal program that facilitated local seizures, which have since been rolled back by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In Rhode Island, two pieces of legislation introduced earlier this year, Senate Bill 2681 and House Bill 7640, would sharply restrict prosecutors’ ability to seize assets, the majority of the proceeds of which are awarded to local police departments. Nearly $15.7 million in property in the state was seized by law enforcement between 2003 and 2013, according to public records obtained by local news station WPRI. In 2013, according to WPRI, 38 percent of seizures in Rhode Island were for $1,000 or less — critically, more than it might cost to hire an attorney to fight to keep the property or cash.

Supporters of the legislation say that civil asset forfeiture violates due process rights — prosecutors can seize property that they claim is related to a crime even, again, if that person is never convicted. The new legislation would limit prosecutors to seizing assets connected to an actual criminal conviction, and also protect people’s homes, vehicles worth less than $10,000 and small amounts of cash. Critically, it would ensure that the state provide a person contesting forfeiture of their property with an attorney if they cannot pay for one themselves. The legislation would also limit participation in the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing program, through which the federal government transferred back $23,493,801 in seized asset funds to Rhode Island law enforcement in fiscal year 2017.

Like other criminal justice reform legislation, civil asset forfeiture reform often generates unusual political alliances: The legislation is backed by the Rhode Island ACLU and spearheaded by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative organization with a strong libertarian bent that argues that reform would be good for both civil rights and the state’s business climate.

Justin Katz, the center’s research director, points out that the state’s political climate has made enacting such legislation impossible in the past. “Rhode Island has a highly transactional General Assembly,” Katz told The Appeal.“Even fantastic, no-brainer ideas can be tangled up in complications about who is allowed to have a win during the course of a session. In this case, asset forfeiture reform is complicated by the obvious self interest of law enforcement agents to maintain the status quo.”

But the legislation is opposed by law enforcement and by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who, though a Democrat, has aggressively campaigned against legislation to legalize recreational marijuana. He has also supported a bill to make it easier to charge drug dealers with homicide when drug sales result in a fatal overdose. In an April 26 letter to the chairperson of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Kilmartin wrote that the proposed civil asset forfeiture legislation “would enable criminal activity and create a sanctuary for criminal behavior.” Furthermore, Kilmartin warned that barring the seizure of residential properties “invites criminal activity, including narcotics activity, into our residential neighborhoods.”

Even though Rhode Island is among the nation’s smallest states, Kilmartin is in effect one of the nation’s most powerful district attorneys because his office prosecutes felonies across a state of one million people.

“Overall, I think eliminating civil asset forfeiture is a huge step forward,” said James Vita, of the National Lawyers Guild of Rhode Island. “The Attorney General’s office should be ashamed that they opposed this bill.”

Kilmartin’s office declined to provide additional comment beyond providing The Appeal with a copy of their letter of opposition.

Yet Vita also argued that legislation is flawed because it would restrict but not bar law enforcement from profiting from seized assets. It would also require the state to “prove by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioner had actual knowledge of the underlying crime giving rise to the forfeiture” — meaning that it is substantially more likely to be true than not, a lower burden of proof than what prosecutors must meet in criminal cases, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What’s more, property owners who even had knowledge of a crime but were not involved in it could still have their property seized.

For the strange-bedfellows alliance committed to criminal justice reform, however, the bill is still a sensible and easy step toward a better system. But the Democratic attorney general in a reliably blue state is actively fighting alongside police to sink it. The Senate and House bills are currently before their respective judiciary committees, and getting the legislation signed into law will be an uphill fight. The movement to reform civil asset forfeiture still lacks the power, for now, to ensure that this is an issue that Democratic politicians are wary to cross the cops on.

Clarification: Kilmartin’s office declined to provide additional comment beyond providing The Appeal with a copy of their letter of opposition.

More in Explainers

Elections matter: Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit

AndrewWarrenFL on Facebook

Elections matter: Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit


State Attorney Andrew Warren of the 13th Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Hillsborough County, surprised many last year when he narrowly defeated incumbent State Attorney Mark Ober, who had been the chief elected prosecutor in Florida’s fourth largest county for 16 years. A former federal prosecutor, Warren ran as a supporter of criminal justice reform, vowing to lock fewer people up and send more addicts to rehabilitation instead of jail. During his campaign, Warren had also been critical of Ober for the manner in which his office sought the death penalty, remarking that Ober had received a “failing grade in a critical area of criminal justice.”

Nine months into his first year, Warren is choosing to seek the death penalty less frequently than his predecessor, and also choosing to drop the death penalty in some cases where Ober initially sought it.

Warren’s views on the death penalty were explored in a recent Tampa Bay Times article.

According to the profile, Warren has chosen to drop the death penalty in five cases where Ober originally chose to seek it. A sixth person facing capital charges cut a plea deal that allowed him to avoid the death penalty.

There are still 17 cases where Ober initially elected to seek death, and Warren hasn’t yet announced whether he will follow the same path.

“These decisions are the most serious and sobering decisions you make as state attorney,” Warren said. “And it’s different academically than it is when you’re sitting in a chair as the one to make the decision.”

Warren has said the death penalty should be applied “fairly and consistently and rarely.” He has also said he will not use the threat of seeking death as leverage to get someone to plead guilty.

Warren has chosen to seek death in one criminal case that occurred after he took office.

Warren previously pledged to reduce the number of juveniles charged as adults and increase the number of juveniles who receive civil citations, which keeps juveniles out of the criminal justice system.

“We need to do a better job steering juvenile, non-violent offenders away from the downward spiral of the criminal justice system,” Warren said while he was running against Ober. “We should be tough on serious juvenile offenders and always hold people accountable for their actions. But treating kids who commit minor offenses like adult criminals only furthers the revolving door criminal justice system. And it makes our neighborhoods less safe.”

He announced an expansion of the county’s juvenile civil citation program in July.

More in Podcasts