If you haven’t been paying attention, Orange County, Calif., is in the midst of a massive scandal involving the district attorney’s office and the use of informants. DA Tony Rackauckas and his staff have been berated by judges (one of whom recused the entire office from a murder case), had convictions overturned and even let accused killers go free rather than disclose how they use informants. It’s a massive scandal and ought to be national news.
Most of this mess was uncovered by OC Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley and public defender Scott Sanders. But recently, another defense attorney, James Crawford, won a big victory over the DA’s office in a case related to the ongoing snitch scandal. Then, this happened:
James Crawford, a criminal defense lawyer who recently defeated the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) in a major case tied to the region’s ongoing jailhouse informant scandal, claims an OCDA employee assaulted him on a 10th floor courthouse hallway this morning.
Crawford’s swollen face and bloody shirt resulted after one of DA Tony Rackauckas’ investigators “pummeled” him in the midst of a brief, terse exchange about who was more sleazy: defense lawyers exposing the systematic cheating involving jailhouse informants or prosecutors and police who’ve repeatedly violated constitutional rights and hidden evidence to win convictions.
According to Irvine-based lawyer Jerry Steering, who is representing Crawford, the investigator, whose identity the Weekly is not publishing until it’s officially confirmed, grabbed his client, knocked him to the floor, jumped on him and then “punched him at least 10 times in the face” before officers in the courthouse pulled him away.
“This guy socks him and knocks his socks off,” said Steering, who specializes in pursuing police corruption cases and plans to file a civil lawsuit.
Jerry Steering, a lawyer representing Crawford, said his client was in the courthouse to represent a woman who was subpoenaed to testify. The D.A.’s investigator was assigned to watch over the woman, he said.
When Crawford approached his client, the investigator disparaged defense attorneys as “sleazy,” Steering said. Crawford replied that defense attorneys were no worse than the Orange County district attorney’s office, which has been mired in an ever-widening scandal over the use of testimony from inmate informants.
As Crawford walked away, the investigator flicked a large paper clip at the lawyer, Steering said. Crawford then tossed the clip back toward the investigator.
“The investigator then grabs [Crawford’s] head and slams it into the bench and then punches him like 10 times in the face and head,” Steering said, adding that sheriff’s deputies and officers from the Santa Ana Police Department had to remove the investigator.
Incredibly, not only has the investigator who pummeled Crawford bloody not been criminally charged, we don’t even know his name. Rackauckas won’t release it. Here’s a statement from his office.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) has received inquiries about an OCDA Investigator’s employment status in regards to the courthouse incident yesterday, March 9, 2016. The California Employment Law and The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights require that the OCDA have all the pertinent information into a matter under review before any HR action is taken. The OCDA is waiting on that information, which we anticipate will take several days, in order to make an appropriate personnel decision.
No further information will be disclosed at this time.
There you have it. The “privacy” of cops and state employees means we don’t get to know the identity of a DA investigator who smashed a defense attorney’s head into a bench, then punched him up to 10 times (allegedly!). For more, er, pointed commentary on this incident, see defense attorneys Scott Greenfield and Rick Horowitz.
Interestingly enough, this morning I received an email press release from the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, a police union. It seems that California state Sen. Mark Leno has introduced a bill in the California legislature that would revise the current law to make personnel records of police officers public record. The police union, with the backing of the AFL-CIO, is adamantly opposed to the legislation. This is actually the third press release I’ve received voicing opposition to the bill. Here’s an excerpt from one headlined, “Senator Leno to Police Officers ‘Privacy? You Don’t Need No Stinking Privacy!’”
SB 1286 would change long-established and highly effective state law that has provided privacy for peace officers’ personnel files, restricting disclosure to criminal prosecutions where the peace officer is a witness and appropriate showings have been made to a Judge. Proponents want to dismantle this system, making unsubstantiated claims that to do so would improve transparency and accountability and enhance public trust of law enforcement.
The ACLU and State Senator Mark Leno are pushing legislation that would greatly expand the exceptions that apply to investigations or proceedings conducted by civilian review agencies, inspectors general, personnel boards, police and civil service commissions, city councils, boards of supervisors and other agencies. It would make police officer personnel records and records relating to sustained complaints against them available to the public.
“SB 1286 singles out peace officers in a prejudicial and discriminatory manner and sets a dangerous precedent for all public employees in California. The bill is unnecessary because existing law provides for accessing police personnel files in appropriate cases,- with safeguards in place that protect officers’ privacy. This bill would only serve to facilitate fishing expeditions by criminal defendants and their attorneys, devastate officer morale while eroding trust in law enforcement. State law protects all public employees by ensuring the disciplinary process is not a pubic spectacle,” said ALADS President George Hofstetter.
This is nonsense. It amounts to a “just trust us” policy of leaving police oversight to prosecutors and police agencies alone. There are countless examples in which media investigations or investigators working for defense attorneys or attorneys in civil litigation have uncovered past abuse, deficiencies in training and other problems never cited when that officer was cleared by a DA or internal affairs investigation.
The Orange County story illustrates the folly of these laws.* The investigator alleged to have beaten Crawford works for a DA who has already been reprimanded by a judge, whose office has been reported to have repeatedly lied about its use of informants, and who has widely been accused by defense attorneys of covering up gross misconduct by his staff. The same DA has refused to prosecute cops shown to have lied in these cases for perjury, likely because doing so would implicate people in his office. The incident in question appears to have been an altercation over this very scandal. As the DA, Rackauckas or his office would presumably be the party investigating the incident. We’re just supposed to trust that he’ll do a fair and thorough job? And if the investigation clears Rackauckas’s own employee, just as he has insisted there was no wrongdoing on the part of his staff in the informant scandal, the public could ostensibly never know the investigator’s name.
There’s a good case to be made for keeping, say, police officers’ home addresses out of the public record. But names and disciplinary files? No way. Cops are entrusted with extraordinary power. They can arrest, detain, injure and kill. That sort of power is corruptive. It can only be delegated along with a healthy dose of transparency and accountability. That means that to assume those powers, you have to sacrifice some of your rights, at least while you’re on the job. The same goes for prosecutors, who don’t have the power to kill, but certainly have the power to ruin lives.
The scandal in Orange County is a disgrace in and of itself. But the outrage has only been compounded by the laws, case law, procedural rules and bureaucracy as well as special protections for cops, informants and prosecutors that have shielded the guilty parties from responsibility and the public from knowing the truth. These protections not only stand in the way of real accountability, but they also can confer an air of untouchability to the people who benefit from them. It’s the sort of arrogance that, for example, might lead a DA’s investigator to think he can beat a defense attorney bloody for daring to talk back to him.
(*For the record, the head of the Orange County chapter of the deputy sheriff’s union suggested the incident was “an effort by a criminal defense attorney to drum up a payday.”)