Plaintiffs Seeks Data on Spitzer's Implementation of Racial Justice Act
SANTA ANA – The landmark California Racial Justice Act, passed in 2020, prohibits the state from pursuing convictions or sentences based upon race, ethnicity, or national origin and allows people to challenge proceedings that may have been tainted by racial bias. But for the law to be effective, the public must be able to access policies and data from prosecutors.
Today, Chicanxs Unidxs de Orange County, the ACLU Foundations of Southern California and Northern California, and the Peace and Justice Law Center filed suit against OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer for violating the state's Public Records Act (PRA) by refusing to release documents concerning the county's implementation of the Racial Justice Act.
“Spitzer campaigned on the promise to usher in a new era of prosecutorial ethics and transparency in Orange County," said Robert Ponce, legal fellow with the ACLU SoCal. "But since taking office, the OCDA has systematically flouted state law by sitting on public records for over a year."
As part of its effort to monitor compliance with the Racial Justice Act by all 58 district attorneys in the state, the ACLU of NorCal submitted separate requests to the OCDA for prosecutorial data in February 2021 and again in February 2022, and for related policies, practices, and training materials in July 2021; while the ACLU SoCal submitted a request for prosecutorial data related to sex work in September 2021 and the volunteer community group Chicanxs Unidxs submitted a request for prosecutorial data related to the Racial Justice Act this past July.
In all five instances, the OCDA refused to produce any data and asserted overbroad and unsupported exemptions. In response to all four requests for prosecutorial data, the OCDA denied disclosure of records due to formatting, claiming that the county does not maintain records in the format requested.
“The OCDA's stonewalling of legal requests denies our right to know who is getting charged for what crimes, and whether people of color are locked up more often or for longer sentences," said Sean Garcia-Leys, co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center and attorney for Chicanxs Unidxs. "The Racial Justice Act is a powerful tool, but it only works if we have basic information about how prosecutors wield their extraordinary power. Transparency matters to accountability."
As the U.S. Department of Justice investigation reiterated last week, the OCDA has an egregious history of abuse of power. But instead of opening his office up to public scrutiny, Spitzer has sought to shield prosecutorial decision making from accountability.
"Californians have a constitutional right to know what prosecutors are doing in our name," said Emi MacLean, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of NorCal. "Yet the OCDA is refusing to produce the exact same data that he disclosed from the time of his predecessor three years ago. What is Spitzer hiding?"
An ACLU report based on that 2017/18 data showed persistent racial disparities in prosecutions under former D.A. Tony Rackauckas. The report also revealed a continued pattern by Spitzer's office of criminalizing people for low-level offenses stemming from substance dependence or poverty, based on 2019/20 case data obtained and published by the media outlet Voice of OC.
Last June, Spitzer gained notoriety as the first district attorney to have been found to have violated the Racial Justice Act. This underscores the need for consistent prosecutorial transparency.
The ACLU's suit asks that the court compel the OCDA to comply with the PRA and fulfill the five requests by plaintiffs. The lawsuit also asks the court to order the OCDA to take affirmative steps in publishing certain public data regularly online.