A former Santa Clara County prosecutor who says he was fired for criticizing the District Attorney's Office is now challenging District Attorney Jeff Rosen's reelection bid in 2022.
Daniel Chung wants to replace Rosen, a 10-year incumbent, alleging that the DA maintains policies that do a disservice to crime victims and defendants and runs an office that is rife with inefficiencies, causing taxpayers too much money.
In February, Chung wrote an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News criticizing "progressive" prosecutors for criminal justice reforms that would change classifications for some robberies and reduce jail time. He criticized reforms that create a "revolving door for repeat offenders" and place undue burdens on victims of violent crime.
Although he didn't directly criticize his boss, Chung was demoted two days after his public outspokenness. Refusing a severance package to resign, he was terminated from his job in the DA's office and unceremoniously walked out of the building by three DA's office investigators, according to a September lawsuit he filed in federal court. The lawsuit claims Rosen and the county violated his constitutional right to free speech.
Chung, 32, said if he is elected he would seek to transform the DA's office by streamlining the way prosecutions are handled. The current system shortchanges the victims of crimes and causes unnecessary and expensive delays, he said.
Based on his own experiences inside the DA's office, Chung said he would also increase communication with staff and transparency.
"Nobody should be punished for choosing to express counter opinions," he said, regarding his own alleged sidelining and ultimate termination.
Chung, a Korean American, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Milpitas. He currently lives in San Jose. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he prosecuted felony gun crimes in New York's Bronx County. In 2018, he joined the Santa Clara County DA's violent felonies unit and prosecuted domestic violence cases, he said during a recent phone interview. In 2020, he was awarded the Robert L. Webb Award, an excellence award presented by the Santa Clara County district attorney, according to his court filing.
Chung said his views aren't based on politics but rather on his long experience as a prosecutor interfacing with victims and defendants.
"I got a very close look at violent crime in the county," he said.
Santa Clara County has a "hot potato" prosecution process, Chung said: A case can pass through the hands of as many as seven deputy district attorneys by the time it resolves. At each phase, a new prosecutor often steps in; the assigned attorney changes from arraignment to preliminary hearing and so on.
"That's just outrageous. It's a system where no one really takes ownership. It's assembly-line prosecution where people throw it along from one to the other," he said.
Along the way, evidence might not be gathered properly or evidence is lost; miscommunications can become detrimental to the case, he said. The earliest phases of a case are the most critical. If the prosecution hasn't put in the effort to build the case, it "can fall apart in an embarrassing fashion in court," he said.
The victim is being "significantly shortchanged" in this system, he said. Prosecution of cases takes years. The victim, who has to restate what happened seven or eight times with different prosecutors, is unduly burdened. The whole process is a disservice to the victim and their family, the defendant who should receive a speedy trial and the taxpayers, who are ultimately footing the bill, he said.
Chung has seen plea deals that are suddenly reneged by prosecutors after a new deputy district attorney takes over a case. The new prosecutor needs to get up to speed, evidence gets lost and the deals are worse over time, he said.
"That's just wrong," he said.
"One of the things I dreaded was opening an old case that was five, six or seven years old. It had gone through generations of prosecutors who could not figure out how to move the case forward: Where's the evidence? It's not there anymore. Do we still have contact information for the witnesses?" he said.
Chung instead would manage cases "vertically," having the same prosecutor handle a case all the way through from the defendant's intake to the sentencing, which would maintain continuity and speed cases along.
The current policies regarding defendants are also burdensome.
"If we are trying to hold the defendant accountable, we need to do it in a fair way," he said.
Weak cases shouldn't be overcharged to extract plea bargains. The use of special allegations and enhancements for crimes, which can add years to a sentence, should be used sparingly with the object of protecting public safety, he said.
A district attorney should also focus on serving the community and should not be in the business of self-promotion and pursuing personal ambition. The DA's office should focus on policy upgrades such as revising the sexual assault manual and obtaining new software that allows prosecutors to better follow their cases, something he said hasn't occurred under Rosen.
"When a defendant gets rearrested, we don't even know," he said.
Chung said that building in efficiency would reduce costs of prosecutions while freeing up funding for programs that address the root causes of crime.
In response, Rosen's longtime political advisor Leo Briones said, "Jeff Rosen is a nationally recognized criminal justice reformer who has worked closely with the police and community groups to reduce crime, help crime victims, hold perpetrators accountable and safely reduce the number of individuals in jail. He has deep and broad support all over Santa Clara County and across the political spectrum.”
Chung's other rival, Public Defender Sajid Khan, is running as a "true progressive" for the DA's seat with a focus on rooting out systemic racism, shrinking mass criminalization and addressing the root causes of crime. Chung casts himself instead as a "moderate."
Khan is a reformer who supports eliminating disproportionate sentences under the three strikes law; supports ending the money bail system that disproportionately impacts poor and marginalized people; and advocates for diversion programs and alternatives to imprisonment. He would not prosecute children as adults nor cases in which police violate the Constitution or engage in racially discriminatory practices when collecting evidence, according to his website.
"He's a super nice guy," Chung said of Khan, but Khan has never been a prosecutor.
"He has only been a public defender and his job has been to poke holes in the prosecution's case," he said.
A prosecutor's job is to build a case that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
"When he comes into office, he can't just clean house. There are a lot of limitations."