April 2018

San Diego City Attorney’s Office Report to New Lawyer Members of the San Diego County Bar Association

By Mara Elliott

San Diego City Attorney

The San Diego City Attorney’s Office employs 165 attorneys and 200 support staff. We have three divisions of roughly equal size: our Civil Litigation Division advises the Mayor, City Council, and City departments; our Civil Litigation Division defends the city and sues to protect its interests; and our Criminal Division prosecutes misdemeanor crimes on behalf of the people of the State of California.

Our work is interesting, varied, and high-stakes. The office’s mission can be summed up in 10 words: “We protect the City of San Diego and its residents.” Here are some of our significant activities and accomplishments from the past year:

Protecting our City’s Most Vulnerable Populations

In response to Proposition 47, which reduced certain drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, our office developed the S.M.A.R.T. (San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track) Program. This program provides treatment, counseling, and bridge counseling to those who have found themselves homeless because of an underlying issue, such as substance abuse.

We also began transitioning the San Diego Family Justice Center, our one-stop shop for victims of domestic violence, from the San Diego Police Department to the City Attorney’s Office. We are working with our partners to provide services to victims throughout the County.

Our office has been the statewide leader in obtaining Gun Violence Restraining Orders to remove firearms from people who are a serious danger to themselves and to others. Working with the San Diego Police Department, we have taken guns from people who had threatened to kill or whose judgment was clouded by mental illness.

We have focused on protecting the environment by holding polluters accountable, removing hazardous materials from homes, waterways, and landfills, and preventing the destruction of our ecologically fragile shoreline. A state appeals court recently upheld an order requiring three paint manufacturers to remove lead paint from San Diego homes that were built before 1951.

Protecting the Public

Our team reviews about 20,000 cases a year and prosecutes criminals who commit misdemeanor offenses.

Last year, our Office prosecuted about 2,700 cases involving motorists who were driving while impaired by alcohol, prescription drugs, marijuana, and other substances. We filed two cases under a rarely used misdemeanor charge, Furnishing Alcohol to a Minor Causing Death. In one case, the adult received 100 days in custody for providing alcohol to his underage girlfriend resulting in the death of a 16-year-old boy in Tierrasanta. The second involves a downtown bar and an adult customer whose actions led to a drunk driving fatality on I-5.

We prosecute owners of substandard housing, abandoned and structurally unsafe buildings, and other nuisance properties for fire, health, and safety violations. 

And in our consumer protection role, we held accountable restaurants that were adding a “surcharge” to bills without advising consumers in advance, or truthfully explaining what the charge meant.

Protecting the Taxpayers

We protect taxpayers by defending the city from lawsuits and through our ongoing efforts to advise the city on the use of its resources for the benefit of our neighborhoods. The City of San Diego is sued about 200 times a year. Cases range from excessive force cases to employment matters to negligence cases to personal injury. This year we instituted internal programs to improve our performance in court, including litigator roundtables and increased training and mentoring.

We work with the Mayor, City Council, and city departments to ensure that they have the information they need to make good decisions on behalf of their constituents. For instance, we provided detailed reports describing the legal ramifications of complex competing citizen’s initiatives concerning redevelopment of the SDCCU Stadium. 

Accountability and Public Trust

We value and respect public input and transparency. For that reason, the City Attorney attends City Council meetings and holds quarterly town halls in every council district. We also have expanded our presence by assigning a deputy city attorney to each police division. These attorneys attend town council, planning group, and related meetings to report on our services and to help communities address issues like public nuisance, crimes, and other emergent trends.

Within our office, we have a Chief Diversity Officer to ensure we’re hiring staff that represents the neighborhoods they work in, a Chief Conflicts Officer who oversees conflict of interest and other ethical issues, and a community relations officer to ensure we regularly communicate with San Diegans.

In Conclusion

The City Attorney’s Office does exciting and rewarding work on behalf our of city and its residents. We are always looking for motivated lawyers who want to be part of an exceptional and talented team that’s committed to making San Diego a wonderful place to live.