LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office (LACPD) is woefully under-resourced to handle cases involving noncitizens, according to a report released today by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.
The LACPD, which provides criminal defense attorneys for those who can't afford them, has a proud history going back to 1914, and it's the largest public defender's office in the nation. But out of 700 attorneys in the public defender's office, only two are experts in the incredibly complex immigration laws of the U.S. This enormous inadequacy in in-house expertise can lead to disasters for immigrants.
Without familiarity with the incredibly complex immigrant laws, a public defender can inadvertently put a noncitizen client in danger of deportation. Even relatively minor criminal offices can lead to deportation from the U.S. if not properly handled.
The ACLU SoCal report, "Defend L.A.: Transforming Public Defense in the Era of Mass Deportation," includes several real-world examples, including:
- Christian P., a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in 2013 to driving a vehicle without the owner's consent. He got a sentence of 365 days in jail. But what a difference a single day makes. That 365-day sentence made the conviction an aggravated felony, subjecting Christian to mandatory deportation. Luckily, an immigration law expert stepped in and got the sentence reduced to 364 days, putting Christian out of danger of deportation.
- Norberto S., also a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in 2015 to possession for sale of methamphetamine, and that put him in line for mandatory deportation. An immigration law expert intervened in this case and had Noberto plead guilty to a more serious offense. That move, called pleading upward, might seem counter intuitive, but the more serious offense didn’t carry mandatory deportation.
Even minor misdemeanor offenses — such as shoplifting, turnstile jumping, or public urination — can trigger deportation if not handled with the support and oversight of an immigration law expert.
According to the report, other California counties do a far better job of staffing immigration law experts in their public defender offices. For example, Alameda County, with a staff of 108 public defenders, has five immigration law experts. That's a ratio of one immigration law expert for 22 public defenders, or 1:22.
Contra Costa County's ratio is 1:75, and San Bernardino County’s is 1:96. In comparison, the ratio in L.A. County is 1:350.
"Providing an adequate number of immigration law experts is not only humane, it’s the law," says Andrés Kwon, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Emerson fellow with the ACLU SoCal. He is the author of the "Defend L.A." report.
In a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Padilla v. Kentucky, the Court held that noncitizens' Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel includes receiving accurate advice about the immigration consequences of criminal dispositions. This right also includes pursuing alternative dispositions.
"Such informed legal defense could not be more paramount today, as the Trump administration expands the federal government’s reliance on local criminal justice systems to advance its deportation agenda," Kwon said.
The ACLU SoCal report's primary recommendation is that 15 additional immigration experts be added to the LACPD's staff. The estimated cost for this would be no more than $3 million, or about one-hundredth of 1% of the county budget.
"It's a relatively small price to pay for the county to provide constitutionally mandated representation for noncitizens in criminal court," Kwon said.
Organizations supporting this report include the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Community Coalition, Youth Justice Coalition, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).
Read the full report at aclusocal.org/defend-la.