DA candidates: Caloia, Vallario should talk
Weighing in on an ongoing dispute between the Garfield County sheriff and Ninth Judicial District attorney, the two other candidates running to replace the DA see a breakdown in communication.
The Post Independent recently published an article about the tense relationship between DA Sherry Caloia, a first-term Democrat, and Sheriff Lou Vallario, a Republican.
The story was prompted by a string of emails, supplied by Caloia, that concluded with Vallario unleashing his opinion that the DA is “incompetent” and is allowing plea deals too easily and dismissing a large number of charges.
The DA is the chief law enforcement officer in the district, and as such must be a leader, said Jeff Cheney, who is running as a Republican in November’s election.
Cheney said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to use the newspaper as the medium of communication between two law enforcement department heads.
“The public can’t be feeling good about two elected officials demonstrating that their communication has broken down and they’re not working together.”
Cheney attributed the conflict to Caloia’s lack of experience in how to prosecute a case.
Caloia, however, has said she’s trying to get the law enforcement agencies to produce solid cases that her office can win in court, and she’s often asked officers to do more work to produce better evidence in a case.
Cheney said he, too, sent officers back into the field to do more work on many occasions during his time as a prosecutor, and the DA is ultimately in charge of deciding what charges to file.
Officers would commonly complain “you want this case wrapped with a bow on top,” he said.
The way a DA should balance this conflict — the arresting officer who wants the DA to prosecute all cases versus the prosecutor pushing for more solid evidence — is by meeting with the street-level officers often to explain the prosecution’s decision-making.
“I was notorious for getting out Title 18 (the Colorado Criminal Code), and asking what is our evidence for the elements of the crime.”
Sometimes there were problems with the case that could be fixed; sometimes the right evidence just wasn’t there, said Cheney. But the officer always walked away understanding why the decision was made, he said.
But what’s developed in the present DA’s office now is an “us-versus-them” mentality with law enforcement, “which I’m hearing from people all over the district,” he said.
Part of the fight between Caloia and Vallario comes from differing standards of evidence. Police and deputies need “probable cause” to make an arrest. But a prosecutor wants a higher level of evidence to achieve the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” needed for a conviction.
Cheney says the national standard for DAs in entirely different, what he called “reasonable probability of success at trial.” Again, he attributed this misunderstanding to Caloia’s inexperience.
Running against Caloia and Cheney as an independent, Carbondale attorney Chip McCrory said the nature of overlapping law enforcement agencies plays into this conflict.
“This is part of the checks and balances built into the system. The way you deal with it is by talking to each other,” he said.
“You can’t let the police sit there and think you’re just giving the case away.”
If the DA’s office is not in communication, it causes some bad feelings, and both sides end up feeling justified, said McCrory.
He recalled a case while he was at the Aspen DA’s office involving a hitchhiker charged with killing a person who gave him a ride. The suspect was in a different jurisdiction and the FBI was on the way to interview him. At this time in the 1990s, it was common for the FBI to not record interviews, but McCrory forced agents to do that by calling their superiors in the night.
This resulted in solid evidence that brought a guilty plea before going to trial, and that communication is essential to building strong cases, he said. “It wasn’t a case of animosity between us, but making sure things were done right for an airtight case.”
Much of Caloia’s and Vallario’s conflict, he said, is pure politics. “This is largely just Democrats and Republicans not talking to each other in an election year.”
The sheriff’s criticism that too many charges are getting dismissed is just election-year politics to build support for his candidate, said McCrory.
Vallario supports fellow Republican Cheney.
Vallario has also criticized Caloia’s decisions to offer plea bargains in major cases.
But the reason for plea bargaining is simple math; the DA’s office can take on only a finite trial load, said McCrory.