ACLU Sues OC District Attorney Over Racial Justice Act Documents

Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, A

Photo: Getty Images

SANTA ANA (CNS) - The American Civil Liberties teamed up with a local activist organization to sue Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Wednesday for allegedly failing to comply with public records act requests for data regarding its handling of the new Racial Justice Act law.

The lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court by the ACLU and Chicanxs Unidxs de Orange County.

The organizations filed five public records act requests to Spitzer's office in 2021 and 2022 "seeking prosecutorial data and other information relevant to the implementation of the Racial Justice Act," according to the lawsuit. "Four of these requests sought data reflecting prosecutorial actions and case outcomes, and one request sought prosecutorial policies, practices and training materials."

The District's Attorney's Office "has refused to produce any data, asserted overbroad and unsupported exemptions, withheld key policy documents, and rebuffed efforts to provide statutorily required information," the suit alleges.

District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said the office has "absolutely complied with the law in connection with the ACLU's numerous PRA requests, including resending previous responses when the ACLU claimed technical difficulties on its end which prevented it from receiving our responses."

Edds said the office has "sent 19 responses to the ACLU since their initial request in July 2021, including 14 monthly updates by email since August 2021. California law does not require government agencies to create new records for public records requests if the records do not already exist. We cannot produce records we do not have.

"The law safeguards taxpayers from being forced to respond to overly burdensome fishing expeditions. The ACLU's requests  that were denied were denied as a result of being either overly burdensome or records not in possession of the Orange County District Attorney's Office as allowed under the law."

The new law aims to eliminate systemic racism in criminal justice.

The lawsuit claims that the failure to respond to the public records request "is apparently standard practice."

Spitzer "is now refusing to produce the exact same data that the OCDA previously produced in 2019," the suit alleges. "Further, OCDA has also refused requests from public defenders who have sought data necessary to pursue Racial Justice Act claims in criminal court on behalf of people facing criminal charges, whether that information requested pursuant to the PRA or the Racial Justice Act."

The lawsuit notes that now-retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett found that Spitzer had violated the Racial Justice Act when mulling whether to pursue the death penalty against a double-murder defendant in Newport Beach.

In the case of Jamon Buggs, Spitzer said, during a discussion on the death penalty with prosecutors, that he knew Black men in college who dated white women to increase their social status. Buggs, who is Black, was convicted of killing a man who had just made friends with the defendant's ex-girlfriend, who is white, as well as a woman, who was sleeping overnight with the man.

Edds disputed the ACLU's characterization of Prickett's ruling.

"There was absolutely no finding of actual bias by the district attorney as a violation of the Racial Justice Act. Any assertion to the contrary is patently false," Edds said.

When one of Buggs' attorneys asked Prickett at the sentencing hearing if he had found that Spitzer violated the Racial Justice Act Prickett replied that he had made that finding.

The ACLU had used data provided by Spitzer's office from 2017 and 2018 -- when his predecessor Tony Rackauckas was the county's top prosecutor -- to issue a report claiming "racial disparities in charging decisions," according to the lawsuit.

"For example, 2.1% of people in Orange County are Black, but Black people represented 5.8% of those criminally charged in the county," according to the lawsuit's citation of the report issued in February.

The Orange County District Attorney's Office "is also more likely to charge Black and Latinx people with felonies and sentencing enhancements than white people, and less likely to offer Black and Latinx people diversion as an alternative to incarceration," the lawsuit alleged.

Edds said it was a "frivolous lawsuit... that is completely divorced from reality."

Edds added in a statement that the ACLU's  "one and only goal is elect soft-on-crime district attorneys who will implement policies that endanger public safety and in fact harm the very communities of color they pretend to care about.

"Across the United States, the ACLU is hellbent on trying to destroy district attorney's offices while hiding behind the progressive soft-on-crime movement."

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