The Associated Press by Terry Collins - January 12, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Prosecutors on Friday charged San Francisco's newly sworn-in sheriff with three misdemeanors, including domestic violence, related to a New Year's Eve incident with his wife. Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi faces one count each of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said. "While I do not relish having to bring charges against a San Francisco elected official, I have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state of California, and as the chief law enforcement official for the city and county of San Francisco, it is my solemn duty to bring criminal charges when the evidence supports such action," Gascon said. "Whether this was the elected sheriff or any other San Francisco resident, this type of behavior is inexcusable, criminal and will be prosecuted," the district attorney said. Gascon said the basis for the child endangerment charge was that the couple's son saw the alleged incident occur. Gascon declined to explain the allegation that Mirkarimi influenced a witness. Mirkarimi was booked at San Francisco County Jail, said San Francisco police Sgt. Michael Andraychak. He was released on $35,000 bail. Gascon said prosecutors have also requested an emergency protective order prohibiting Mirkarimi from having contact with his wife and son. He is also ordered to stay away from his home while police investigate other possible domestic violence incidents involving Mirkarimi and Lopez, Gascon said. Mirkarimi could be arraigned as early as Tuesday, Gascon said. The sheriff, 50, vowed to remain in office while he fights the charges. He spoke to a gaggle of reporters camped outside his office Friday afternoon and denied the allegations. "The charges are very unfounded," he said calmly. "We will fight the charges." He also said he wouldn't resign from office and planned to turn himself in for fingerprinting and mugshots later Friday. "We are cooperating," he said. His wife spoke briefly, and much more emotionally. "This is unbelievable," she said. "I don't have any complaint against my husband. This is unbelievable." A neighbor reported that Mirkarimi grabbed and bruised Eliana Lopez's arm during a heated argument at their home, according to a police affidavit. The injury was shown on a video recorded by the neighbor, and a text message conversation between Lopez and the neighbor included details of the incident, according to the affidavit requesting a search warrant to obtain the video camera and phone. Lopez, a former Venezuelan telenovela star, defended her husband in a written statement, saying the episode was "completely taken out of context." The couple was married after having their first child in 2009. Controversy swirled around the investigation from the start. Days after the alleged dispute, Mirkarimi was sworn in as San Francisco sheriff, but a judge had declined to perform the ceremony to avoid a potential conflict if Mirkarimi were charged. Mirkarimi appeared at the ceremony with his wife and son. Asked about the incident, he called it a "private matter, a family matter." But the case prompted newspaper commentary and protests by anti-domestic violence groups. A coalition of them on Thursday urged Mirkarimi to take a leave from his post until the case is resolved. San Francisco's sheriff does not have broad law enforcement powers as sheriffs do in other jurisdictions. The position mostly entails overseeing an organization of more than 800 sworn officers and a civilian staff of about 100. The department runs San Francisco's jails with an average daily inmate population of 2,200, provides City Hall and courtroom security, carries out court-ordered evictions and warrants, and aids San Francisco police in enforcement actions.
Mirkarimi was elected sheriff in November after serving seven years as one of the city's more liberal supervisors. He's been an advocate for legalization of medical marijuana, was a co-founder of the California Green Party before becoming a Democrat in 2010, and led the nation's first successful attempt to ban plastic bags from supermarket chains. If convicted of the misdemeanor charges, Mirkarimi would have to give up his department-issued firearm and possibly be subjected to searches as conditions of probation. He also would be required to attend domestic violence classes, pay a $400 fine and could be put on probation for up to three years or sent to jail for up to a year. That would make him the only elected sheriff in the state forbidden from carrying a gun, said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, president of the California State Sheriff's Association. Under state law, Mirkarimi could only be automatically removed from office if convicted of a felony. Mayor Ed Lee has the authority to charge Mirkarimi with official misconduct and suspend him from office, according to John St. Croix, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission. Lee issued a statement Friday evening terming the charges "extremely serious and troubling," but did not indicate what actions, if any, he would take. "As mayor, I must now review the facts and options available to me under the city charter, but I must also ensure that we do not take steps that undermine the integrity of the criminal justice proceedings," the statement said. After possible hearings, the commission could make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors about whether to reinstate him or permanently remove him from office. Associated Press writers Beth Duff-Brown and Paul Elias contributed to this report.