Everybody deserves a second chance. Third chances? Sometimes.
But one San Francisco Superior Court judge apparently believes in ninth chances. He indicated that this month he’ll release from jail one of the city’s most prolific auto burglars, a man with a lengthy rap sheet involving eight car burglaries, some of which turned violent.
In April, the grand jury indicted Deshawn Patton, 21, of San Bruno on 20 counts, including 11 felonies, related to eight car break-ins over the course of a year. Patton mostly hit rental cars, stealing items from tourists visiting from as far away as China and Germany.
Four times, police caught Patton in the act, but he fled — on foot, in his own car while ramming a police car with officers inside, or ramming a vehicle he’d just burglarized. In that third instance, he drove onto a sidewalk and toward police officers before speeding away.
On April 20, 2017, court records show, he ran a stop sign to escape police and hit a Nissan with such force it wrapped around a tree and was totaled. Patton didn’t stop to help the driver, who was knocked unconscious and hospitalized for four days with head and rib injuries.
Incredibly, this spree, which took place from April 2016 to May 2017, happened while Patton was on probation for a previous car break-in, to which he pleaded guilty in October 2015.
So, apparently, the judge believes in 10th chances.
But actually, court records show Patton is also on probation in San Mateo County for a felony residential burglary committed just last fall. So maybe the judge believes in 11th chances — I’ve lost count.
Patton kept getting picked up and kept posting bail. Twice last year, he failed to appear in court, including once in the hit-and-run case. So San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón opted to consolidate his charges, prosecuting them all at once to bring home their seriousness.
That happened as San Francisco experienced a surge in property crimes, including car break-ins. Property crimes spiked to an unprecedented level in 2017, up nearly 15 percent from 2016. Car break-ins contributed to much of the rise, with a record 31,322 reports of the crime last year.
A glimmer of good news in this depressing tale? Reports of car break-ins through June are down more than 20 percent from the same time period last year, according to the district attorney’s office. That could be because of increased media, political and police attention to the crime and more signs warning people to leave nothing in their cars.
Anyway, the grand jury indicted Patton on 11 felonies, including eight counts of auto burglary, one count of receiving stolen property, one count of resisting an executive officer and one count of hit-and-run causing injury.
The grand jury also indicted him on nine misdemeanors, including two counts of receiving stolen property, one count of possession of a burglary tool, one count of unauthorized use of a radio communication, three counts of resisting police officers, one count of theft and one count of hit-and-run causing property damage.
Shortly after the indictment, Gascón said, “Individuals like this are behind the city’s property crime challenge, and by tying them to multiple incidents, we can ensure they face consequences that are commensurate with the impact they’ve had on our community.”
Well, not really. For that, you need a judge to impose those consequences.
The very forgiving judge I mentioned is Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite, who previously worked as an attorney in Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office.
Hite is perhaps best known for flushing all 64,713 outstanding warrants issued in quality-of-life cases from January 2011 through October 2015, giving police no authority to detain people who skipped court appearances and rendering the citations meaningless. He did so as part of a court-wide consensus that fining poor people who can’t afford to pay is pointless.
Then-Mayor Ed Lee was irate at the decision, saying the point of citations isn’t to collect money from poor people, but as leverage to compel them to accept treatment, shelter and other services.
At the time, Lee said through a spokeswoman that the judges were not “meeting the responsibilities voters elected them to. When one branch of government fails — be it executive, legislative or judicial — we all fail.”
It could be argued San Francisco is about to fail again. Patton faces a maximum sentence of seven years and eight months in state prison. On July 27, prosecutors offered Patton five years and eight months, meaning he’d probably serve less than three years with good behavior. He has been held in county jail since November. Hite said he’ll be on probation for three years.
But Patton’s attorney and Hite reached their own tentative deal. Patton agreed to plead guilty to most of the grand jury charges, and Hite indicated he will put him on probation and release him, according to several people present in the courtroom that day.
The judge did indicate he would sentence Patton to six years and four months in state prison if he winds up back in his courtroom for another break-in. Hite also indicated he would require some sort of electronic monitoring of Patton for up to a year.
The sentencing is set to be finalized at 9 a.m. Friday. Should the deal stick, Patton would probably be released that day.
Max Szabo, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said the deal between Hite and the defense is “certainly not the message that we want to send.”
“Police and prosecutors spent a lot of time identifying this individual, building a case and sending it to the grand jury,” he said. “We remain hopeful the court’s sentencing reflects the scope of Mr. Patton’s crimes.”
The San Francisco Police Department declined to comment.
Lisa DewBerry, Patton’s private attorney, also declined to comment, calling the matter “gossip” because the sentencing hasn’t been finalized.
A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court issued a statement: “The court is not able to respond on this matter, as it is a pending case. … The court will take into consideration the Adult Probation Department’s report when making the sentencing decision.”
She said that report has not yet been issued.
So what’s the big deal if one guy who breaks into a lot of cars and rams some others in the process is released earlier than the average San Franciscan might expect?
Well, there are many problems.
As Szabo explained, a plea deal with a judge sets the market rate for sentences for future serial car burglars.
“The incentive for a defendant to enter a plea agreement with prosecutors vanishes if they can get a sweeter deal elsewhere,” he said of defense attorneys bypassing prosecutors and making a deal directly with the judge.
Another problem is that it’s extremely difficult for police officers to pick up car break-in suspects, meaning the chances of catching Patton if he breaks into another car are not great. Last year, police made arrests in just 1.6 percent of reported car break-ins.
The crime happens so quickly — often in mere seconds — that even when police are nearby, it can be hard for them to nab the suspect. Many assailants, often gang members, lead police on such speedy car chases through city streets that officers must give up the pursuit for safety reasons.
But the bigger problem in a city where City Hall, police and the district attorney’s office have finally — finally! — committed to taking rampant property crime throughout San Francisco seriously is the message the court is sending.
Jeff Wayman is a volunteer with Court Watch, a project of Stop Crime SF, an association of neighborhood groups determined to prevent and reduce crime and hold the city and courts accountable for doing the same.
Court Watch, which considers the San Francisco Superior Court too lenient, sends volunteers to hearings to signal to judges that residents are paying attention to the sentences they hand down. A few, including Wayman, were present for the Patton hearing on July 27.
Wayman, a retired plumber and auto mechanic who lives in the Richmond District, joined the group after somebody broke into his house in the middle of the night. I asked him the outcome of that robbery.
“Suffice it to say I’m 6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds, and not easy to get along with at 3:30 in the morning when you’re breaking into my house,” he said.
Wayman said it bothered him that Patton is likely to receive more probation when he had already violated his previous probation.
“It’s just shocking, I guess. Appalling,” he said. “I’m already very angry and totally concerned about the desecration of any sort of property rights or safety in San Francisco.”
Michel Balea, a retired UCSF clinical study coordinator who lives in Golden Gate Heights, also observed the Patton hearing with Court Watch. He joined the group after his motorcycle and car were stolen in front of his house. He said he was disillusioned after watching the hearing.
“It was, I would say, an eye-opener about how dysfunctional the system is,” he said. “You wonder how many slaps in the face the public is willing to bear.”
Asked what message Hite will send if he sticks to the agreed-upon deal, Balea said that’s simple: “You can do it as often as you want, and you’ll be released.”