The ACLU of Southern California announced Tuesday a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office is hiding and withholding evidence that could help an inmate facing charges of assault against a deputy.
The lawsuit alleges that the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department hides evidence of deputy assaults on jail inmates by filing complaints improperly. The ACLU says complaint reports against deputies are not filed in deputy employment folders. Instead, they are filed in the folder of whichever inmate submitted the compliant. Therefore, when searching for a deputy’s record of previous alleged assaults or investigations, the ACLU says the search comes up blank or incomplete.
“The response by the Sherriff’s Department is 'we have no such file.' We have no such information because that information has been buried, deliberately buried,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU/SC.
Steve Whitmore, spokesperson for the L.A. County Sherriff’s Department, said the office had not received the complaint yet. But he said, “We’ve done nothing wrong, illegal or secret.” He said the department would wait to see what the lawsuit states and address the points at a later time.
In a separate issue, the lawsuit accuses the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office of adopting a policy that prevents prosecutors from handing over exculpatory or favorable evidence to criminal defendants and their counsel.
The DA’s policy the suit references is technically known as Special Directive 10-06, initialed September 2010 by District Attorney Steve Cooley. It outlines a protocol the office is to follow when deciding what exculpatory evidence in a case should be turned over to the criminal defense and how it's managed.
“They invade the role of the judge by taking for themselves the decision of what evidence gets introduced in the courtroom. The judge can’t decide that the evidence is relevant and admissible because it’s been hidden from the judge,” said Benjamin Gluck, an attorney with the Bird, Marella law firm.
A law commonly known as Brady disclosure, born from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory “material evidence” before a trial — in other words, evidence that prosecutors think could probably result in a different outcome if the evidence is disclosed. There’s an ongoing debate amongst lawyers about this law.
Attorneys on the lawsuit — brought by the ACLU/SC, the law firm Bird Marella, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, USC Law Professor Michael Brennan and filed on behalf of local defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas — say it potentially affects guilty verdicts and pleas over the past decade.
In a news release, the ACLU also says that given the "unprecedented scope of this scandal," a separate complaint was filed with the State Bar of California against District Attorney Steve Cooley. The civil rights organization is asking for an independent counsel to review all cases that have resulted in a guilty verdict or plea since these policies were adopted, and it wants a civil grand jury investigation of the practices.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ACLU's acronym.