A former Santa Clara County deputy district attorney abused his office and violated the due process rights of several criminal defendants, a State Bar Court review panel ruled last month, and should therefore lose his law license for four years. Finding that BENJAMIN THOMAS FIELD [#168197] “disregarded prosecutorial accountability in favor of winning cases,” the three-judge panel upheld the recommendation of hearing Judge Pat McElroy and also urged that Field be given five years of probation.
The state Supreme Court must rule on the recommendation before it takes effect.
Field, 45, a career prosecutor and one-time rising star in the DA’s office, originally was charged with 25 counts of misconduct in four cases he prosecuted. The bar court dismissed several charges as duplicative.
“Although our system of administering justice is adversarial in nature and prosecutors must be zealous advocates in prosecuting their cases, it cannot be at the cost of justice,” wrote Judge Catherine Purcell, who was joined in the decision by Judges JoAnn Remke and Judith Epstein.
“Field lost sight of this goal,” Purcell continued, “ … and in doing so, he disregarded the foundation from which any prosecutor’s authority flows — ‘The first, best and most effective shield against injustice for an individual accused … must be found … in the integrity of the prosecutor.’”
The judges found that Field’s misconduct began shortly after his 1993 admission to the bar and spanned 10 years. The allegations stemmed from four cases and charged:
- Field obtained a dental examination of a minor accused of sexual assault in violation of a court order. He was attempting to try the youth, who claimed to be 13, as an adult. A juvenile court judge suppressed the evidence obtained in the examination.
- In a murder case, Field intentionally withheld a defendant’s statement favorable to co-defendants. As a result, the judge dismissed a 25-year gun enhancement against one of the co-defendants.
- He made an improper closing argument in a sexually violent predator (SVP) case, which an appellate court described as “deceptive and reprehensible.” The court reversed a judgment committing the man as an SVP.
- He intentionally withheld a witness’ statement that was favorable to the defense in a 2003 habeas corpus proceeding involving a sexual assault. The judge found that he committed a discovery violation.
In that matter, the review panel found that Field’s misconduct escalated over time and constituted “a calculated scheme to hide evidence favorable to the defense.”
Two men who were convicted of sexual assault had filed petitions for writ of habeas corpus and provided a declaration by a witness who claimed the 15-year-old victim had made false accusations because she missed curfew.
Field’s investigator found and interviewed the witness but did not notify the defense. In addition, he instructed his investigator to prepare a misleading declaration and filed it with the court, filed a statement with the court implying he did not know the witness’ whereabouts, and then waited five months before disclosing the interview, only after opposing counsel learned of the interview and had filed a motion alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
Finally, the court concluded, Field urged the court to proceed with the habeas hearing without the witness.
In the same case, Field obtained five search warrants despite the judge’s doubts about his tactics. Indeed, when Field asked the judge what to do if he needed a warrant in an emergency, the judge testified, “I looked him right in the eye and I said, ‘Ben, just don’t do it.’” Five days later, Field obtained a search warrant in another state without notifying the habeas judge.
The review panel found the Field committed several acts of moral turpitude, and did not obey a court order or follow the law. Field admitted to poor judgment and viewing his discovery obligations too narrowly, and self-reported the finding of prosecutorial misconduct to the bar.
Throughout the trial before Judge McElroy, which drew widespread interest among Field’s colleagues, he defended his behavior. The review department rejected his assertions.
Although the misconduct could have resulted in disbarment, the court found extensive mitigation, including Field’s cooperation with the bar’s investigation, an impressive record of pro bono service and “an extraordinary demonstration of good character.” In particular, it expressly noted the testimony of former Santa Clara District Attorney George Kennedy, who lauded Field’s “extraordinary professional skills and good character” and said he considers Field an honest person who is not intentionally corrupt.
Field left the DA’s office and is now chief of staff with Working Partnerships USA, a San Jose company that addresses the needs of working families in Silicon Valley.
The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) filed an amicus brief on his behalf warning that several of the grounds for discipline involved questions of law that have not been settled. “Attorneys should be disciplined for conduct that violates clearly established law, or conduct so outrageous that its illegality is obvious,” the amicus stated, “but should not be disciplined for conduct where the law is unsettled.”