Constitutional Law

Defense Lawyer, Backed by ACLU, Sues Los Angeles DA, Says Exculpatory Evidence Is Often Withheld

A California defense lawyer has sued Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley contending that prosecutors in his office are routinely instructed to suppress exculpatory evidence that they are required by law to disclose to their opposing counsel.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and two law professors, plaintiff Jeffrey Douglas contends that Cooley has violated the constitutional rights of “countless” defendants by imposing policies that discourage prosecutors from complying with their duty under Brady v. Maryland and state law to disclose exculpatory evidence, reports the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

The claimed policies relate to allegations of abuse of jailed inmates by sheriff’s deputies and subsequent criminal charges against inmates that help cover up their mistreatment, reports the City News Service.

Hence, the Los Angeles Superior Court suit, which was filed Tuesday, also names as a defendant LA County Sheriff Leroy “Lee” Baca, contending that his department has an improper policy of placing complaints against deputies concerning alleged jail assaults only in inmate files. That policy makes it impossible for defense attorneys to determine whether a particular testifying deputy has been the subject of multiple complaints, the suit says.

It seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and a writ of mandate directing Cooley and Baca to implement new policies. The ACLU/SC also says it complained to the State Bar about Cooley and is seeking the appointment of an independent counsel and a civil grand jury investigation, the News-Enterprise reports.

In a written response, Cooley said the suit is “a blatant attempt to mislead the public and the court” and said he is confident the policy of his office concerning Brady material “complies with the highest constitutional and statutory standards.”

A representative of the sheriff’s office said the department hasn’t reviewed the complaint yet but has done nothing illegal or inappropriate, reports the Associated Press.

An ACLU/SC press release provides further details about the alleged civil rights violations and links to a copy of the complaint.

The ACLU points out in the release that California prosecutors have a broad duty to disclose evidence favorable to the defense pretrial, as recognized by the state supreme court.

However, “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,” the release contends. “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.”

Douglas is also represented in the suit by Bird Marella Boxer Wolpert Nessim Drooks & Lincenberg and law professors Charles J. Ogletree of Harvard University and Michael J. Brennan of the University of Southern California.

Additional and related coverage: “FBI, LA Sheriff’s Office Investigate Each Other; Did Feds Help Inmate Smuggle Cellphone Into Jail?”

Los Angeles Times (editorial): “Who’s running L.A. County’s jails?”

Los Angeles Times (opinion): “Cooley, Baca’s silence is stunning”

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