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ACLU files suit against LA County sheriff, DA for withholding evidence

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POSTED July 10, 2012 9:05 p.m.


LOS ANGELES (AP) — A civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday against Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca alleges the pair concealed evidence that potentially affected verdicts and pleas in thousands of criminal cases over the past decade.

The suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California on behalf of defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas claims Cooley adopted a policy that had prosecutors withhold certain evidence from suspects that could have helped in their defense.

Baca allegedly hid details of deputy assaults on inmates from defense attorneys in cases where the law enforcement officer was the sole or principal prosecution witness.

The lawsuit is the latest legal challenge by the ACLU alleging malfeasance by the county's top law enforcers. The organization filed a suit earlier this year against Baca, claiming he and other top brass knew of inmate abuse but had done little to reform the department.

The policies of Baca and Cooley "have for over 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 for the ACLU of Southern California.

Steve Whitmore, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, said the department had not yet seen the lawsuit but had done nothing inappropriate or illegal.

Cooley said in a statement that his policies comply with the law and that the lawsuit is a "blatant attempt to mislead the public and the court."

The suit seeks an order by a judge to stop the alleged practices.

It claims those accused of crimes had their due-process rights violated by Cooley's prosecutors who didn't disclose details to them that might affect the outcome of a trial in their favor. Cooley's alleged mandate called for prosecutors to suppress so-called exculpatory evidence if they speculated before trial that it was unlikely to affect a verdict.

California law requires prosecutors to disclose all evidence to defendants before trial.

The lawsuit notes that several felony cases were dismissed in 2001 because Cooley's office failed to meet similar legal obligations. A compliance unit was later created to deal with the issue.

Baca is accused of misfiling complaints made by inmates who are charged with assaulting deputies. The lawsuit said instead of placing inmate complaints in a deputy's personnel file, they were placed elsewhere.

"Because of this policy, if an inmate is charged with assaulting a custodial officer there will be no way to determine whether that officer has been the subject of a previous complaint or a dozen previous complaints about the deputy's use of unjustified or excessive force," the lawsuit said.

The ACLU said it has filed a complaint against Cooley with California's state bar that demands the appointment of independent counsel to review cases that resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts since the policies were created. The organization also seeks a civil grand jury investigation.

"For any justice system to merit that name, the first principle must be that those who are charged with enforcing the law themselves obey it," said attorney Benjamin Gluck, who helped file the lawsuit. "By this lawsuit we seek nothing more but will accept nothing less."


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