JoCo DA candidates on the issues: DA’s Office parameters for public communication

Johnson County District Attorney candidates weigh in on parameters for communicating to the public regarding criminal investigations. Above, Prairie Village police had a home in the 7600 block of Tomahawk Road blocked off as they served a search warrant in relation to a missing and endangered person investigation. File photo.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for Johnson County District Attorney.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to the final installment, item five:

Describe what you believe to be the proper role and parameters of the District Attorney’s office to communicate to the public regarding criminal investigations and charging decisions.

Zach Thomas (Democrat)

Information released to the public during an active criminal investigation must be necessarily limited because community safety and protecting the integrity of the investigation is of paramount importance during an investigation.

As a general rule, charging decisions should not be accompanied by a public comment. In the event a case is charged, ethical rules generally limit a District Attorney from conveying additional facts about the case outside of publicly available in the charging documents. If a case is reviewed and not charged, the victim or victim’s family should absolutely be notified and given an explanation as to why the decision was made but privacy interests of an accused will generally prevent public comment absent compelling circumstances. The exception to this general rule is if a decision is made to not file charges in a case of public importance. The most obvious example to illustrate when a charging decision must be adequately explained to the community is in the event a police officer has been accused of a crime. Public trust in our police agencies and criminal justice system demand that fully transparent, public accounting be given to the public in these situations.

Steve Howe (incumbent Republican)

The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office files over 6,500 cases a year. We review over 9,000 case submissions by law enforcement. When possible both law enforcement and the district attorney’s office will provide updates to victims on the status of the investigation. On high profile cases the decision to file or not file charges have warranted a press conference. Law enforcement and prosecutors have always been guarded about providing information on unfiled cases. In most instances a 5 year statute of limitations applies and providing too much information could jeopardize the ability to file charges when additional evidence comes to light. We should balance the public’s right to know with the community’s desire to hold offenders accountable for their crimes.

Review the Johnson County District Attorney candidates responses to four other issues raised by our readers: