Being charged or convicted of a crime does not mean that a citizen loses their basic rights. In fact, it is at those times when civil rights are most needed. While some convicted defendants are sentenced to jail and prison time, their incarceration is not a license for officials to do anything they please to those serving out their sentences. Those basic standards of decency are often ignored. Fortunately, some are now stepping up to shed light on abuses of by certain actors in the local criminal justice system.
As reported yesterday in MercuryNews.com, the Southern California America Civil Liberties Union, and others have jointly filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that the Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Leroy Baca, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, have engaged in various civil rights abuses since at least 2010.
Specifically, the suit claims that the defendants concealed evidence of assaults by deputies on inmates in cases where the deputies are the sole or principal prosecution witness. Court documents also claim that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had a policy of prohibiting disclosure of favorable evidence to criminal defendants, in spite of United States and California Supreme Court opinions mandating it be provided to criminal defense attorneys through the discovery process.
Due to the extent of the alleged corruption, the allegations, if true, could serve as the basis for challenging the outcomes of thousands of criminal cases over the last decade. The Southern California ACLU has filed a complaint with the California State Bar against Cooley requesting that independent counsel be appointed to review all cases that have resulted in guilty verdicts or plea since the program was allegedly adopted.
According to Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the Southern California ACLU, the defendants have corrupted criminal trials for more than a decade, turning them into “truth-concealing perversions of justice: a system of injustice for all criminal defendants.” Rosenbaum added, “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.”
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), that withholding exculpatory evidence in a criminal prosecution violates a defendant’s constitutional right to due process “where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment.” Further, in 1992, the California legislature adopted a law that requires prosecutors to disclose all favorable evidence to defendants before trial, and the California Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the law imposes a duty upon prosecutors to disclose all unfavorable evidence as well.
The reason for this rule should be obvious to everyone: the criminal justice system is not about punishing as many people as possible, but rooting out the truth.
Unfortunately, justice is not always of paramount importance to those tasked with its pursuit. Prosecutors and police are sometimes overzealous, and, on occasions such as this, cross the line into unethical and potentially illegal behavior. The situation in California is just another reminder of the importance of obtaining experienced legal counsel in criminal cases.
Orange County criminal defense attorney Lauren K. Johnson has extensive experience protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. If you have questions regarding California’s criminal law or your rights, contact attorney Lauren K. Johnson today.