5th Judicial District Attorney: Democrat Bruce Brown seeking a second term
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series profiling the candidates for the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. The second, Tuesday, will highlight Republican candidate Bruce Carey. The third, Wednesday, will feature independent candidate Sanam Mehrnia.
Like many attorneys fresh out of law school, Bruce Brown was pretty green when he started his career as a public defender in Los Angeles. So green, in fact, that in one of his first cases, Brown’s client, a seasoned criminal who had been through the system many times, knew more than he did about the process.
“My client stood and said, ‘You don’t have a clue!’” Brown said. “In L.A. County, they would just throw files at you and push you out the door. And you would think, ‘What do I do now?’”
That was many years ago, however, and now Brown is anything but green. He was elected in 2012 as District Attorney for Colorado’s 5th Judicial District, which includes Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties, and the Democrat is now running for re-election against Republican challenger Bruce Carey and Independent Sanam Mehrnia. He said his experience in both urban and rural courtrooms and his work on complex federal cases make him the most qualified candidate for the job.
His office in Summit County is clean and sparse, reflecting the itinerant lifestyle of a DA covering four rural counties; Clear Creek one day, Summit the next, then Eagle, then Lake then Denver, and on and on.
Brown grew up in LA, a self-described “valley boy,” but earned his undergraduate degree at the University Colorado-Boulder before graduating from Whittier Law School in 1986. After four years with the public defender’s office, he started his own criminal defense practice. “There was more blood, more sadness,” Brown said of his time in LA, where he worked some cases from South Central, a notoriously gang-ridden part of the city.
Brown has worked about a dozen murders in his career, and while he said he enjoyed the professional challenge and complexity of those cases, they take their toll emotionally.
“It’s always very sad dealing with a family that has experienced a permanent loss,” he said. “They’re the types of circumstance some people never get over. It all brings you into the emotional part more than other cases.”
From South Central to Summit County
Brown moved to Colorado in 2002 and started a second practice in Lakewood, which he expanded to include federal cases. Business was good, but in 2003 he decided to make a change and run for DA.
“I felt that if my family or neighbor was a victim of a crime, we would want the best possible representative in the courtroom,” he said. “I believed I could fill that gap.”
Brown lost that race to the incumbent, Mark Hurlbert, but ran again and won in 2012 after Hurlbert moved on to become assistant DA in Arapahoe County.
“It was a challenging transition,” said Brown, who had only worked as a solo attorney and quickly had to learn how to manage a 37-person office. “One of the major responsibilities of the DA is to administer a large office and all of the small things that people don’t see.”
Brown said he sought to bring a balanced approach to prosecutions in the Fifth, weighing the preferences of victims against the effect of convictions on defendants. That can mean crafting individualized deals that don’t always require heavy jail time and other stiff penalties.
“We are a small enough office to craft bargains that address the needs of offenders and desires of victims without a policy etched in stone,” he said.
Brown’s opponents, however, have accused him of over-charging minor offenses to get leverage over defendants. Mehrnia, one of his challengers, argues a high-profile dog-bite case where the defendant at one point faced 14 years in prison is a prime example.
“It’s simply not true,” Brown retorted. “I never use the charging process as a fulcrum to extract guilty pleas.”
He argued that the charging process occurs before a complete investigation has occurred, which means his office will sometimes modify charges as more information becomes available. Brown also said that people outside the DA’s office don’t see all of the cases they decline to take, giving a skewed picture of how they approach prosecutions.
The Fifth’s charitable contribution program has also been criticized for lacking transparency. The program, which has been around since before Brown was DA, asks plea-by-mail defendants to include a charitable contribution ranging from $50-$200 based on the offense. Brown’s office then gives the funds to charities it approves.
According to documents obtained in a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request, 18 charities — including Advocates for Victims of Assault, CASA and Summit County 4-H Club— received between $744 and $950 each quarter in 2015 for a total $47,581.26 donated.
That year, the program’s income was $49,102.25. It’s unclear where the remaining $1,520.99 went, however, there was a similar gap in 2014 that was accounted for as expenses, including processing fees and advertising to solicit charity applicants. These numbers match up with those posted publicly on the DA’s website.
Brown defended the program, saying that he restructured it and made it more transparent when he came into office.
If re-elected, Brown said he hopes to expand his office’s use of deferred sentencing programs, as well as introduce a new program to assist veterans in the criminal justice system.