Michael Hestrin has been Riverside County’s district attorney since January 2015, and he is seeking another four-year term.
In 2014, he garnered 55% of the vote to defeat his boss, former District Attorney Paul Zellerbach. Four years later, he nearly doubled the votes cast for him and increased his winning percentage to 66% over challenger Lara Gressley, who has decided to repeat the challenge this year.
In one of his early statements, Hestrin said, as district attorney he does and will “… seek justice on behalf of people of Riverside County. He will protect public safety and keep people safe from criminals and crime.” Consequently, the crime rate in the county has declined 21% in 2021.
His opposition argues that Hestrin’s office often files unnecessary or the most severe charge possible. But he believes that is an integral part of the prosecution’s role in law enforcement. Many cases ultimately result in a plea bargain. The prosecutor does not get the conviction or penalty initially sought and the defendant has pleaded guilty to more and may receive some time in jail.
Both sets of attorneys — prosecution and defense — expect to reach an agreement through bargaining.
“We do engage in negotiation with the defense attorneys,” Hestrin acknowledges. “We look at the evidence and file everything the case supports. Our standard is whether we have evidence to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt and does the attorney believe that.”
With respect to the objections to the use of the death penalty, Hestrin is not defensive.
“When you have defendants who have committed the most heinous behavior, I don’t think we overuse the death penalty. In March, we had 15 death penalty cases pending, and that’s not out of line,” Hestrin replied.
Another issue that has drawn fire from his opponents is the contributions his campaign has accepted from law enforcement groups, especially Riverside Sheriff’s Association. Both Gressley and Strunsky believe that is a gross conflict of interest since his office may have to charge and prosecute a deputy.
But Hestrin responds that this logic would ban all contributions to district attorney candidates because there will always be some possibility the donor might come under investigation.
He does agree in criteria for rejecting or refusing a particular donation. “If you find out the person is a current defendant or under investigation, or committed a crime, I’d return the donation,” he stated.
During his eight years, Hestrin has taken actions to address crime issues from many perspectives. His first step was creating the Gang Impact Task Force. In cooperation with multiple agencies — federal, state and other local — the task force has made more than 100 arrests for murder, taken more than 1,000 illegal guns off the streets and seized untold kilos of illegal drugs. This task force is a prime example of the cooperation among law enforcement agencies in Riverside County, Hestrin said with pride.
Other task forces for which Hestrin is responsible are the Child Exploitation Team that has arrested more than 300 child predators; the Riverside Cold Case Unit that has recently solved several old and nearly forgotten crimes; a Crime Prevention Unit to work with at-risk kids; and a homeless program initiated in February.
“The homeless problem is stubborn and thorny. It’s much more than arresting individuals,” Hestrin said. This partnership will focus on treatment for mental illness, substance abuse and joblessness while trying to transition the individual to a stable environment.
But he does not yet have any current plans for a new task force if reelected.
Also in February, Hestrin made news for his comments about his colleague, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. Hestrin explained that he rarely ventures into the political environment of another jurisdiction. Since he knew Spitzer and was asked to endorse him for re-election, he agreed. However, when Spitzer’s comments about a black man and white couple were made public, Hestrin said, “I had to rescind my endorsement of Mr. Spitzer.”
In a statement issued at the time, Hestrin’s campaign manager Todd Holmes said, “The news of the comments and actions of Mr. Spitzer was shocking, disappointing and in the end inexcusable. Regardless of the good work Mr. Spitzer and his office have done in the past, I cannot in good conscience support his future candidacy.”
Riverside County has not been immune from allegations of election fraud after the 2020 presidential election. Hestrin acknowledged his office had received several complaints.
Since the district attorney’s responsibility is to look at potential election fraud, he assigned it to the office’s Bureau of Investigation. After the analysis, he sent a letter to the registrar of voters stating his office did not find any criminal activity associated with the conduct of the election.
When asked about the Hill problems of short-term rentals and fire inspections, Hestrin felt other agencies had a stronger and primary role in the enforcement of these programs.
“I don’t think we have a major role, especially for short-term rentals. Each community must develop its will of the people,” he replied. “I see both sides. Noise and trash are bad, but yet if I own a cabin, I should be able to rent it. It’s a complex issue that is primarily a local political issue.”
Acknowledging Hill resident’s major concern over wildfire, Hestrin said, “Idyllwild is very concerned about the possibility of wildfire. I’m sympathetic with fire departments who are trying to prevent more destruction. But my office focuses more on arson.”
Hestrin is hopeful the June primary will have a similar result to his first two races, where he gained a majority of the votes, precluding a November race.
“However, with three candidates I believe it could be a runoff. I’ll be ready for the outcome,” he stated. “I have broad support, which I don’t take for granted. Even if I’m way ahead, I’ll run as though I’m behind. And that’s how I practice law. I take nothing for granted.”
And if reelected, Hestrin promised to continue to use “a common-sense practical approach to criminal policies.”