Institute for Legal, Legislative and Educational Action
The family of an El Monte, California police officer killed in the line of duty has filed a wrongful death suit against Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, the L.A. County Probation Office, as well as the motel in El Monte where Officer Joseph Santana was murdered by a violent felon with a lengthy criminal record.
According to the lawsuit, 35-year-old Justin Flores should have been behind bars on June 14th last year, when Santana and El Monte police Cpl. Michael Paredes were called to the Siesta Inn on a report of a stabbing (the Paredes family is expected to file its own lawsuit against Gascon in the near future). When the officers arrived, Flores allegedly killed both officers before shooting and killing himself with the service pistol belonging to Paredes. At the time Flores was on probation after taking a plea deal for being a felon in possession of a firearm, but the lawsuit claims that Gascon violated state law by refusing to treat the gun possession as a “third strike”, which would have resulted in prison time instead of probation.
A prosecutor handling Flores’ criminal case acknowledged that Gascón instructed him to revoke a strike allegation against Flores as part of a special directive issued by the district attorney, the complaint says.
“Gascón’s special directive directly violated California’s three strikes law,” the suit states. “Had Gascón followed the law, Flores would have served prison time for his felony gun possession conviction. He would not have been out on the streets the night he killed Officer Santana and Sgt. Paredes,” who was posthumously promoted to sergeant.
California’s three-strikes law was enacted by voters in 1994 to add prison time to the terms of previously convicted felons. The law requires that defendants convicted of any felony, with two or more previous felony strikes, be sentenced to a mandated prison term of 25 years to life.
In June 2022, California’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court ruling that Gascón cannot prohibit prosecutors from seeking sentencing enhancements for defendants under the three-strikes law.
“The district attorney overstates his authority,” the appellate court said. “He is an elected official who must comply with the law, not a sovereign with absolute, unreviewable discretion.”
Still, the appellate court acknowledged, the state Constitution and Supreme Court vest district attorneys with sole authority to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek.
Gascon has appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which has not rendered a decision.
Flores was not only able to avoid prison, but most contacts with his probation officer as well. According to the lawsuit, Flores only had one contact with the probation department from the time he was released from jail in March of 2021 until the attack on the El Monte officers in June of the following year, despite the fact that under the terms of his probation Flores was supposed to have monthly meetings with his probation officer.
The lawsuit filed by Santana’s family alleges a probation officer saw Flores only once from March 2021 to June 2022 despite a Los Angeles County policy requiring a monthly check-in with all probationers.
Additionally, the probation officer never filed a “desertion report” documenting Flores’ failure to check in. That would have revoked his probation and resulted in his immediate incarceration.
According to the complaint, Flores’ probation officer completed a phone check-in with him on June 2, 2022, after learning he was in possession of a gun, which he was prohibited from having, and had beaten a woman.
The probation officer allegedly directed Flores to attend an in-person meeting on June 6, but Flores didn’t show up and police were not notified.
Then, on June 13 — the day before Santana and Paredes were shot to death — the officer filed for revocation of Flores’ probation.
“Despite this, and in complete disregard for the safety of the public, Flores was not taken into custody,” the suit states. “Instead, Flores continued to commit crimes on the street, including stabbing or attempting to stab a woman at the Siesta Inn, which prompted a call for service to the El Monte Police Department. Officer Santana and Sergeant Paredes responded to this call and were shot and killed by Flores.”
Gascon is a big fan of putting more gun control laws on the books, even as he has repeatedly taken steps to put violent offenders back on to the street as soon as possible. Last year the D.A. was criticized for allowing the release of a convicted murderer just six years into a fifty-year sentence after one of his top deputies declined to present evidence at a hearing to determine the killer’s next steps after he aged out of the juvenile facility where he was being held, and as noted above, Gascon has tried to implement a policy in his office barring the use of “third strikes” or other sentence enhancements even as crime rates rose across the county. These policies are putting the public at risk, and hope that the families of these fallen officers are successful in holding Gascon to account… along with voters in Los Angeles County who have the chance to undo their 2020 mistake and vote him out of office next year.