Lawsuit: Is the ACLU the New Sheriff in Town?

RUSS REPORT - There may be a new sheriff in town if the ACLU has anything to say about it.

This month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) filed a civil rights lawsuit naming Sheriff Leroy Baca, the Sheriff’s Department (LASD), District Attorney Steve Cooley and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (LADA) challenging the “secret program used between the [defendants] that conceals evidence of deputy assaults on detainees at the Men’s Central Jail.” Douglas versus Cooley.

The lawsuit details a litany of abuses and violations that have occurred over the course of a decade in which both Cooley and Baca are alleged to be complicit. Gruesome episodes of alleged beating of inmates at the hands of deputies are depicted in graphic detail.

It is alleged that after an inmate has been beaten, LASD personnel would report that the inmate was hostile and LADA would pursue charges of assault, battery or obstruction that served to cover up excessive force used by deputies. Because of the threat of serious jail time for inmates resulting from bogus charges, plea bargains were often struck and in turn insulated LASD and LADA from liability and protected deputies from disciplinary action.

In many cases, deputies alleged to have committed these crimes were often the only prosecution witnesses.

“The policies of District Attorney Cooley and Sheriff Baca challenged in this lawsuit have for more than a decade now corrupted LA criminal trials into truth-concealing perversions of justice: a system of injustice for all criminal defendants,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel of the ACLU/SC.

“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.”

Sheriff Leroy Baca was not available for comment.

The Plaintiff, Jeffrey Douglas, a criminal defense lawyer, believes these violations undermine the truth seeking function of criminal trials and, in large part, is contributory to the crises within the Los Angeles County jails.

“I have spent my adult life defending people accused of crimes,” said Jeffrey Douglas, the plaintiff in the suit. “After 30 years of this work, I am not easily shocked, but the choice of our elected officials to disregard flagrantly the statutory and constitutionally required disclosure of accusations of misconduct by sheriff deputies is shocking.”

The ACLU has also filed a complaint with the State Bar of California asking for a grand jury investigation of this “secret program” that has allowed deputy-on-inmate violence to soar to epic proportions under Cooley’s watch and for prohibiting disclosure of favorable evidence to criminal defendants.

District Attorney Steve Cooley disputes these allegations. He said, “The lawsuit filed by the ACLU, certain criminal defense attorneys and two law professors is a blatant attempt to mislead the public and the court. This office is confident that our Brady policy complies with the highest Constitutional and Statutory standards.”

Baca’s clashes with the ACLU don’t stop with this lawsuit. In January 2012, he, along with three others at LASD were sued by two inmates, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin who were purportedly beaten and threatened by deputies and have witnessed other similar beatings of inmates in custody.

The ACLU contends that the vast majority of inmates are pretrial detainees who are not being held pursuant to criminal convictions and that large numbers of detainees have not committed or been charged with violent offenses.

The Complaint offers dozens of examples of Deputy violence against inmates, the use of inmates to incite violence on other inmates and a pattern of ongoing intimidation and retaliation. Baca said he was not aware of these problems in October 2011, but in fact, a now retired LASD official named Robert Olmstead had apprised him of many incidents on many occasions while he was employed at LASD.

It is important to note, however, that these are only allegations thus far, made by plaintiffs and the ACLU. It remains to be seen what will happen during a trial.

In September 2011, the ACLU publicized a report that chronicled more than 70 recent cases of excessive and severe incidents of deputy against inmate violence.  Subsequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a “far reaching criminal probe” into these activities. In December 2011, The County Board of Supervisors also commissioned an investigation and sought recommendations.

According to the ACLU Report, “In the past year, deputies have assaulted scores of non-resisting inmates, based on reports from jail chaplains, civilians, and inmates. Deputies have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells.

“They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses, and for the color of their skin. They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs. They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted.

“Many attacks are unprovoked. Nearly all go unpunished: these acts of violence are covered up by a department that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness of deputy violence in the jail system.

“The LASD’s stance that all reports of abuse are lies or mere exaggeration defies common sense.

“With a jail population as large as LASD has, and the plethora of reported complaints substantiated by sworn victim declarations, sworn witness declarations, hospital or medical treatment records, photographs and videos of victim’s injuries, for the LASD, after going through the motions of investigating itself, to make determinations that almost all of those complaints are unfounded is incredible.”

Both lawsuits are still active and the ACLU is currently litigating a third suit that involves the jail situations – Rosas v. Baca, Rutherford v. Baca, and Douglas v. Cooley.

(Katharine Russ is an investigative reporter. She is a regular contributor to CityWatch and to the North Valley Reporter. Katharine Russ can be reached at: ) –cw

Vol 10 Issue 58
Pub: July 20, 2012