L.A. sheriff gains support in legal fight over secret list of 300 problem deputies
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and three other advocacy groups have gone to court to back Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s attempt to send prosecutors the names of deputies found to have committed serious misconduct on the job.
The move is the latest turn in the fight over a secret list of 300 problematic deputies whose history of misconduct could damage their credibility if they are ever called to testify in criminal cases.
The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs has sued the department over the disclosure, saying it would violate peace officer confidentiality laws and draw unfair scrutiny on deputies whose mistakes might have happened long ago.
A Superior Court judge agreed in January that providing the list would violate state law, but said the department could turn over the names of problem deputies when there’s a pending case in which that officer might testify. Last month, a two-judge appellate court panel granted the union’s request to put a temporary hold on any transmission of names, even in pending cases.
The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Friday, asking the appeals court to reject the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs’ request that none of the names of problem deputies be sent to prosecutors.
“Criminal trials are not games where the prosecution and law enforcement are permitted to withhold information that helps the defense,” Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a news release.
“It is essential to the right to a fair trial that the prosecutor inform the defense if there is potentially exculpatory or impeachment evidence in an officer’s personnel file, including conclusions by the department that an officer has filed a false report or lied on the witness stand,” he said.
An attorney for the union said she did not yet have time Monday to review the ACLU’s filing.
The department warned about 300 deputies in October that their personnel files contained evidence of “moral turpitude.” The letters said such acts could include accepting bribes or gifts, misappropriating property, tampering with evidence, lying, obstructing investigations, falsifying records, using unreasonable force, discriminatory harassment and family violence. Sheriff’s officials said it was possible that some of the offenses didn’t apply to any current deputies on the department.
The targeted group represents about 3% of the department’s roughly 9,100 deputies.
In the letters, the department said the list would include only deputies found guilty of wrongdoing by internal investigators. The agency would send just the deputies’ names, not their entire personnel files, the letters said.
Under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors are obligated to alert defendants to any evidence that could aid the defense. That evidence includes information that could undermine an officer’s credibility. Not doing so could result in wrongful convictions.
The court battle over the list of sheriff’s deputies also comes as Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is redefining how her office would handle the names of officers with histories of misconduct. Right now, the office doesn’t obtain lists of problem officers from police agencies, Lacey said in a recent interview.
Criminal trials are not games where the prosecution and law enforcement are permitted to withhold information that helps the defense.
— Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California
In a perplexing wrinkle to the court action last month, one of her deputy district attorneys filed a declaration in the sheriff’s union’s favor stating that Lacey’s office “actively declines to accept information” from officer personnel files without the permission of the officer. But in last week’s interview with The Times, Lacey distanced herself from Deputy Dist. Atty. Jason Lustig’s declaration.
“I didn’t help with it. I didn’t know about it,” she said.
Elizabeth Gibbons, an attorney for the sheriffs association, said recently that she composed the declaration and had Lustig sign it. Lustig, who at the time oversaw the district attorney’s unit that handles police misconduct evidence, now has been reassigned to the agency’s Long Beach branch, a move Lacey said has no connection to his involvement with the declaration.
Lacey’s office published a new policy last month that addresses how to handle certain types of police misconduct evidence. Lacey said the new policy allows police agencies to send her office the names of problem officers, but only if the police organization establishes its own rules surrounding the disclosure and seeks input from the relevant police union.
Asked whether the Los Angeles Police Department has expressed interest in formulating a policy in line with what Lacey has proposed, she responded, “I wouldn’t know.”
“That’s up to them to take the initiative to develop their own policy,” she said.
LAPD internal affairs Cmdr. Stuart Maislin has previously said his agency is monitoring the legal dispute over the sheriff’s list and has not decided whether to send names of problem officers to prosecutors.
The ACLU’s brief was filed in conjunction with California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Public Defenders Assn. — both of which support criminal defense lawyers — and Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based group that advocates on behalf of those who have been incarcerated in the Sheriff’s Department’s jail system. Dignity and Power Now has also started a petition asking the appeals court to allow the names of problem deputies to be sent to prosecutors.
There is no timeline set for when the appeals court is expected to make a decision.
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6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from L.A. County Dist. Atty. Lacey and additional background about the legal dispute.
This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.
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