As a former professor of Japanese business law, Margaret O’Malley is used to dealing with college students.
Now, as the district attorney assigned to Isla Vista, she’ll be seeing plenty of students in the courtroom, as opposed to the classroom.
For the first time, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office has assigned a full-time district attorney to prosecute all misdemeanor cases submitted by the Isla Vista Foot Patrol (IVFP), excluding traffic violations. Previously, such cases would have been handled by any of several district attorneys, depending on the type of crime.
O’Malley, who volunteered for the job, said her background in education and her desire to get involved with the dynamic between residents and police in I.V. made the position a highly appealing one.
“I like college kids and I’m really interested in what’s going on here,” O’Malley said. “I wanted to do something that would really be important to the community.”
Challenges to Santa Barbara County’s jury selection process earlier this year forced the courts to suspend many cases, O’Malley said. She said her department is extremely backlogged as a result, and will take a few weeks at the very least to catch up.
Once her caseload is under control, O’Malley said, she wants to focus on reconciling some of the disagreements and differences between the IVFP and students.
“I’d like to bring a little sanity back to the situation, so it doesn’t seem like a battle between students and law enforcement,” she said.
One major issue that O’Malley will be faced with in the near future is the recent increase in enforcement of laws prohibiting the distribution of alcohol to minors, specifically through kegs of beer. The IVFP has issued numerous citations – each carrying a penalty of $3,076 – for the offense in the past several weeks, and O’Malley said the first cases should reach trial by the end of October.
Despite the intimidating fine printed on the citations, O’Malley said not all instances of furnishing alcohol to underage drinkers necessarily warrant the maximum penalty – fines vary depending on the furnisher’s role in providing the alcohol, and the age of the offending minor.
For instance, providing alcohol to someone who is 18 to 21 without actually purchasing the alcohol carries a minimum penalty of just $250 and community service, O’Malley said. She said she will take into account all the variables in a case before recommending a punishment.
“I will look at every case on an individual basis, and when I do I will look at all the circumstances involved,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley said she has tremendous respect for the work the IVFP officers do, but she said much of the resentment some students have toward law enforcement could be avoided by issuing citations more carefully.
“We’re going to start asking the Foot Patrol to be more specific with their citations,” O’Malley said.
On the other hand, O’Malley said students can minimize the chance of a run-in with law enforcement – particularly with keg parties – by keeping parties under control and keeping possible underage strangers out.
“All we’re really asking is be responsible with your parties,” O’Malley said. “I want I.V. to be a safe place to live.”
Even with the strenuous caseload, O’Malley said she is already feeling confident in dealing with I.V. crime.
“I’m enjoying the job,” she said. “We’re trying to be creative in our approach to the cases we handle.”
O’Malley said only time will tell whether the concept of an I.V. district attorney will pan out, or if it will be too much for one person to handle.
“The department created this position on a trial basis,” O’Malley said. “It will be interesting to see how it works out.”