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San Francisco sheriff pleads guilty in spousal-abuse case

Update Date: Mar 13, 2012 12:22 AM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, in a deal that would allow him to keep his badge and gun, pleaded guilty on Monday to a lesser misdemeanor charge in a spousal-abuse case linked to a New Year's Eve quarrel with his estranged wife.

Under terms of his plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend Mirkarimi serve three years on probation, attend domestic-violence counseling and perform 100 hours of community service. He would also pay a $400 fine plus minor court costs, his attorney Lidia Stiglich said.

But in a sign that the political future of the city's first new sheriff in three decades may still be in question, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he was meeting with the city attorney to consider his options.

"I understand the troubling nature that this guilty plea raises, given the sheriff's role in overseeing and incarcerating criminals in our county jails," Lee said in a statement. "I intend to make a decision based on all of the facts as quickly as possible."

The case against Mirkarimi grew out of a New Year's Eve argument between him and his wife, Venezuelan television actress Eliana Lopez, as they fought over her plans to take their 2-year-old son, Theo, on a trip to her home country.

In a video shot by her neighbor the day after the incident, Lopez said that Mirkarimi, 50, had grabbed her with such force that he left a bruise on her arm. Lopez, 36, later said she did not wish to testify against her spouse.

Mirkarimi, who faced misdemeanor charges of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness, ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of restraint on liberty. Asked if he would resist calls to step down after a case that has stirred a local political uproar and drawn intense media coverage, Mirkarimi said that he saw no reason he should leave office.

"There is nothing constitutional or legally that inhibits my ability to be sheriff," he said, speaking before the statement by Lee. A spokeswoman for the sheriff, Susan Fahey, said the lesser charge would allow him to keep his gun and his badge.

Under city rules, a mayor can initiate a process to remove a sheriff from office, but the final decision on removal would require a three-fourths vote by the city's Board of Supervisors.

In agreeing to the plea deal, both Mirkarimi and prosecutors avoided a protracted legal battle. Before bringing the video before a jury, prosecutors had to overcome a series of legal challenges stemming from Lopez's unwillingness to cooperate with them. Lopez, through her lawyers, had sought unsuccessfully to suppress the footage as evidence.

A trial could have been excruciating for Mirkarimi as well, with a former girlfriend, Christina Flores, ready to testify about the intimate details of their one-year relationship, including a bruise he allegedly inflicted on her in an incident similar to the one described in the video.

Mirkarimi, a co-founder of the California Green Party and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was charged on January 13, five days after he was sworn in as the city's first new sheriff in three decades.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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