Today, the ACLU of Southern California, the law firm Bird Marella, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, and USC Law Professor Michael Brennan filed a major civil rights lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court challenging a secret program by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to conceal evidence of deputy assaults on Men’s Central Jail detainees from criminal defense counsel in cases where these deputies are sole or principal prosecution witnesses and a related operation by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office prohibiting disclosure of favorable evidence to criminal defendants, even though such evidence is deemed essential for disclosure by the United States and California Supreme Courts.
Potentially affecting verdicts and pleas in thousands of cases over the past decade, the suit, filed on behalf of local defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas, calls for immediate cessation of these practices undermining the conduct of fair trials in Los Angeles County. Because of the unprecedented scope of this scandal, the ACLU/SC also filed a complaint with the State Bar of California against District Attorney Steve Cooley, demanded the appointment of an independent counsel with sufficient staff to review all cases that have resulted in a guilty verdict or plea since these policies were adopted, and asked for a civil grand jury investigation of the illicit programs.
“The policies of District Attorney Cooley and Sheriff Baca challenged in this lawsuit have for over a decade now corrupted LA criminal trials into truth-concealing perversions of justice: a system of injustice for all criminal defendants,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel of the ACLU/SC. “This latest in a seeming unending series of law enforcement scandals on the part of County officials means that there can be no assurance that any of the many thousands of prosecutions during this period resulted in a fair trial.”
Numerous reports by advocacy organizations, monitors, and media outlets have documented that deputy-on-inmate violence is commonplace in the Los Angeles County Jails. These investigations have also confirmed that abused inmates are regularly charged for alleged assault on any deputy involved. These charges serve to cover up deputy misconduct because threat of serious jail time for these felonies frequently results in plea bargains, which insulate the county and the individual deputies from potential civil liability and protect the deputies from disciplinary or criminal proceedings for their abuse.
The policies adopted by Mr. Cooley and Sheriff Baca fuel this practice, because they assure that evidence in the possession of the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney that is favorable to the defendant in such cases is concealed. The suit identifies several examples where the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department suppressed such evidence, but the defendant fortuitously discovered it on his own, resulting in either dismissal of the charges or an acquittal at trial.
“For any justice system to merit that name, the first principle must be that those who are charged with enforcing the law themselves obey it,” said Benjamin Gluck, partner at the law firm Bird Marella. “By this lawsuit we seek nothing more but will accept nothing less.”
Nearly 50 years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors like the L.A. District Attorney’s Office violate the due process rights of criminal defendants when they possess information that is favorable to defendants and might affect the outcome of a trial, yet do not disclose that information. In addition to this constitutional requirement, California voters enacted procedures for criminal trials in 1992 that require prosecutors to disclose all favorable evidence to defendants before trial, and the California Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that this provision imposes a duty to disclose all unfavorable evidence before trial, without qualification.
Nonetheless, Mr. Cooley has adopted a formal policy that requires prosecutors in his office to suppress all favorable evidence unless the prosecutor is personally convinced that the evidence is true, that prohibits disclosure of any favorable evidence that is relevant to an ongoing administrative or criminal investigation, and that mandates suppression of favorable evidence if a deputy district attorney speculates, pre-trial, that it is unlikely to affect the verdict. As a result, in all criminal prosecutions since at least 2010, including cases involving deputy-on-inmate violence, deputy district attorneys have been prohibited by Mr. Cooley from complying with their constitutional and statutory disclosure obligations.
“I have spent my adult life defending people accused of crimes,” said Jeffrey Douglas, the plaintiff in the suit. “After 30 years of this work, I am not easily shocked, but the choice of our elected officials to disregard flagrantly the statutory and constitutionally required disclosure of accusations of misconduct by sheriff deputies is shocking.”
In 1978, the California Legislature adopted rules requiring that police departments include citizen complaints against police officers, including custodial deputies, in the officer’s personnel file or a database that can be searched by the officer’s name. The purpose of these rules was to ensure, consistent with constitutional due process requirements, that a defendant can access relevant evidence of past misconduct that could undermine the credibility of a police officer who is involved in the investigation of a crime or who will testify at a trial.
Earlier this year, however, a Sheriff’s Department representative testified under oath that the department does not maintain complaints against deputies assigned to the jails as the statute requires and therefore cannot search for inmate complaints against deputies using the deputy’s name. Although it is unclear how long Sheriff Baca has elected to violate this statutory requirement, it is certain that in countless prosecutions involving a deputy assigned to the jails, the Sheriff’s Department has suppressed evidence that the defendant was entitled to receive as part of the constitutional and statutory requirements for a fair trial.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office is the largest local prosecuting agency in the country, and the Los Angeles County Jails is the largest jail system in the world with a daily population of nearly 22,000 inmates. The lawsuit is Douglas v. Cooley.