SLO County DA Dan Dow is taking the Tianna Arata case to the Supreme Court. Good for him




  • In US
  • 2022-10-02 12:30:00Z
  • By San Luis Obispo Tribune

District Attorney Dan Dow, along with his entire office, have been - and let's not mince words here - kicked off the Tianna Arata case.

She's the young woman who faces misdemeanor charges in connection with the July 2020 Black Lives Matter protest march in San Luis Obispo that blocked traffic on Highway 101.

Both the trial judge and the state Court of Appeal have ruled that Dow and his office should be disqualified from hearing the case due to the DA's conflict of interest.

But Dow is nothing if not persistent. He believes the Court of Appeal "rubber stamped" a trial court decision based on guilt by association and factual errors.

"There was not one shred of evidence that I or my office would treat these defendants unfairly. On the contrary, every piece of objective evidence proved that we were fair and reasonable and that we ignored the shouting of the masses (by way of email, phone calls, petitions, and social media posts) that was attempting to influence our decision one way or another," Dow wrote in response to questions from The Tribune Editorial Board.

Still, appealing to the Supreme Court may strike some as extreme or even obsessive on Dow's part.

Normally, we'd tell him to give it a rest already, as continuing to hold criminal punishment over the heads of Arata and her fellow protesters has been a vindictive, unnecessary exercise from day one.

But think of it this way: There would be great value in having the highest court in California weigh in on just how far DAs can go in spreading their personal political beliefs to the detriment of the job they were elected to perform.

That's been an ill-defined line, and in this conflicted time when so many public officials from both sides of the aisle are using nonpartisan positions to shout divisive, partisan rhetoric, there's a huge need for more guidance on what constitutes bias.

Tianna Arata speaks to protesters blocking traffic on Highway 101 during the July 21, 2020, protest.
Tianna Arata speaks to protesters blocking traffic on Highway 101 during the July 21, 2020, protest.  

Fighting the 'wacky defund the police movement'

In this particular case, defense attorneys called out several examples of bias, including Dow's attendance at far-right events, and a lengthy message about the Arata case that he posted on the Facebook page of the right-leaning group Protect Paso.

Dow accuses the defense of making outrageous claims based on guilt by association.

"The defense lawyers decided to attack me personally by alleging that I was associated with people that may have a different political view than their clients," he wrote. "The defense claimed that I could not possibly be fair when prosecuting their clients because I had been in close proximity and had a conversation with someone that they believed was adverse to their client."

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow speaks at an Oct.
San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow speaks at an Oct.  

But there's more: The defense also based its argument for recusal on a fundraising email Dow's wife sent to supporters:

"Dan needs to know more than ever that you support him, and he really needs your financial support so he can keep leading the fight in SLO County against the wacky defund the police movement and anarchist groups that are trying to undermine the rule of law and public safety in our community," she wrote.

As prosecutors pointed out, it's true that the email never mentioned Black Lives Matter, Tianna Arata or the protests. But that's nothing more than legal hair-splitting.

Look at what was going on at the time that email was sent on Sept. 4, 2020 - it was the day after Arata's first court appearance, during the summer of George Floyd when protesters took to the streets across the nation to demand better treatment of Black Americans. Of course anyone reading that email would connect it to her case.

And just to be clear, it is not illegal to be of the opinion that police reform is needed. Nor is it illegal to peacefully assemble in public spaces to rally for that cause - even in our streets and in a way that may cause discomfort for some people.

The District Attorney's Office is not allowed to prosecute people for their beliefs, and shouldn't choose to make examples of marginalized people who try stand up for their rights.

Court of appeal agrees to publish the decision

Not only did appellate justices side with Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero, who issued the original ruling, but they also agreed to publish their decision, which means it can be cited as case law in the future.

So unless it's overturned by the Supreme Court, the decision will affect every district attorney's office in California - a factor not lost on Dow.

"Prosecutors in every county across California would be recused routinely and it would derail the current criminal and victim justice system if defendants are allowed to 'shop' for a prosecutor that shares their unique views on a particular topic," Dow wrote.

Or it could encourage district attorneys to be more circumspect in sharing their political views - including in their fundraising campaigns, as stated in a court document requesting publication of the decision.

"Publishing the opinion would also have the valuable effect of deterring prosecutors from soliciting campaign funds based on a promise to prosecute groups their voter bases found repugnant," California Attorneys for Criminal Justice wrote in their request.

"More importantly," they continued, "publication would help deter prosecutors and other law enforcement actors generally from misusing the awesome powers of their offices to pursue politically motivated prosecutions."

Regardless of what ultimately happens at the state Supreme Court, this case should serve as a warning: District attorneys should not leave themselves and their offices open to accusations of bias by trumpeting their personal political beliefs, especially when it lays bare the motivation behind their actions as counties' top prosecutors.

It's a needless distraction and can undermine the confidence of constituents who don't share the DA's opinions.

Besides, isn't our world messed up enough without sowing even more division by courting one ideological group over another?

Is a little restraint too much to expect?

We aren't calling on DAs to renounce their political party affiliations, give up their Rotary Club memberships or turn down all public speaking invitations.

We are only asking them to step down from their bully pulpits and stick to the jobs we elected them to do.

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