When I became a prosecutor, what attracted me to the job was the mission – acting in the interest of justice. This means protecting public safety while holding people accountable within the bounds of the law.

As prosecutors, we have a constant duty to meet legal standards, governed by our laws and constitution, as well as ethical standards that are governed by our legal profession. When we fail in either aspect, we must be held accountable.

At the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO), I worked under the leadership of Rick Romley, the elected Maricopa County Attorney at the time. It was a time when divisive politics did not rule the office and, in fact, did not influence how I performed my job as a line prosecutor. I could not and would not have done the job any other way.

Since that time, however, we have witnessed drastic examples of politics eclipsing the legal and ethical standards that should govern all prosecutors.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, in coordination with then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, so clearly abused his power for political ends that investigations were initiated by the State Bar of Arizona and the Arizona Supreme Court. Ultimately, he was disbarred for having brought baseless charges against political opponents that had nothing to do with seeking justice and more to do with political retaliation.

Most recently, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has made news for actions that sadly mimic the style of Andrew Thomas. Local journalists have brought to light that county prosecutors filed unwarranted gang charges against people who protested for racial justice even though they were not gang members; some of them had never even met before.

I’ve represented victims who were abused and exploited by gangs. It’s safe to say that any prosecutor knows the difference between a random group of civil rights protesters and a gang.

According to an ABC15 news report, a City of Phoenix police officer and a MCAO prosecutor even compared these protesters to violent street gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Hell’s Angels. Their evidence: that the protestors wore the same color, carried umbrellas and chanted in unison. At this rate, many other organized political demonstrations qualify as gang activity – ranging from #RedforEd to the Tea Party protests.

Politically motivated prosecutions would have never been tolerated for other lawfully organized demonstrations, and they should not be tolerated for racial justice protests. Free speech, even when we disagree, cannot be criminalized. 

While MCAO has reversed course and dismissed the charges against these particular defendants, there are others who also deserve to have their cases looked at more closely for dismissal. If there is evidence that someone committed criminal damage or some other crime, they should be held accountable. If the evidence against someone shows only that they peacefully protested in furtherance of their cause, their right to free speech and to assemble should be honored. Arizona cannot be a place where people are prosecuted solely for exercising their constitutional rights.

Just as importantly, we cannot go back to the days of Andrew Thomas – the days when legal and ethical standards were thrown out the window in pursuit of politically driven prosecutions.

I appreciate the County Attorney Allister Adel’s decision to hire a former public defender and retired judge to conduct an internal investigation. But the actions here appear so egregious that it necessitates the involvement of a third party with authority to take action. For accountability and transparency, I recommend that MCAO commit to turn over a full, unredacted copy of the investigation to the State Bar of Arizona. The governing body of lawyers can then conduct an independent review of possible ethical lapses and political retribution.

The rights and liberties of everyone in our community are at risk when those we trust to administer justice are allowed to go rogue. No one should have the power to arbitrarily punish those they disagree with – even and especially those entrusted with prosecutorial discretion, a duty that demands honesty and integrity. The public deserves to know who failed in this sacred duty.

January Contreras
January Contreras is a fourth-generation Arizonan, attorney, former advisor to Governor and Secretary Janet Napolitano, and a former Maricopa County deputy county attorney. She served in the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security, leading efforts to combat violence against women and to improve delivery of immigration services. In 2018, she ran as a Democrat for Arizona attorney general.