Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, April 12, 2002


Page 1


County Bar’s Criminal Justice Reform Panel Looks at Lawyers’ Critiques of System in Light of Rampart


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Rank-and-file prosecutors, public defenders and other lawyers and criminal justice professionals from around the state have begun advising a County Bar task force on the kind of shortcomings in the criminal justice system that may have helped lead to the Rampart scandal.

The Task Force on the State Criminal Justice System sent questionnaires to about 1,000 people statewide on issues such as the adequacy of preliminary hearings for criminal defendants, the difficulty in identifying and tracking untruthfulness on the stand by police witnesses, and the voluntariness of guilty pleas, among others.

Responses have started filtering in and suggest about a 10-percent response rate, which is about average for such surveys, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins of the Central District of California told Los Angeles County Bar Association trustees late Wednesday.

“Everyone is eager to have input before we begin to make recommendations” sometime next month Collins, the task force chair, told the trustees.

The panel, which has taken a low public profile but is composed of top jurists, attorneys and scholars, was launched in September and has heard monthly from leaders of a multitude of justice institutions which to some degree were criticized along with the Los Angeles Police Department after revelations that officers framed innocent suspects who then were framed and convicted or felt compelled to plead guilty.

The LAPD already is the subject of a federal consent decree requiring substantial reform and the task force is not studying it. But the courts, the district attorney and city attorney’s offices, and public and private defense counsel all have come under scrutiny by the panel.

Collins and LACBA President-elect Miriam Krinsky said the task force has gotten valuable insight from the institutional leaders, but wanted to supplement it with information directly from the prosecutors and defense lawyers who work in the criminal law trenches on a daily basis.

“We’re very interested in the perspectives of the rank-and-file,” Krinsky told the trustees.

The 20 questions on the six-page questionnaires hint at the broad scope of institutional issues with which panelists are grappling.

Participants were asked about Proposition 115, the 1990 voter initiative that among other things allowed judges to bind defendants over for trial based on preliminary hearings at which only police officers who were not witnesses to the crime testify.

“Do the post-Proposition 115 procedures for the conduct of preliminary hearings strike the proper balance between the need for efficient and expeditious probable cause determinations and the need for procedures to evaluate the merits of a prosecution,” the survey asks. “If not, why not and how would you change the process?”

The questionnaire also asks for suggestions on what to do when a prosecutor believes that a witness, including a police officer, has given false testimony. It asks what role judges should play in reporting police misconduct.

Another set of questions concerns a much-discussed proposal to establish a witness database, to track police officers and informants whose veracity has become suspect, and to distribute the data to prosecutors, judges and—perhaps—defense lawyers.

There is also a set of questions concerning the interplay of discovery requirements under the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence unilaterally—including, it has been argued, evidence that testifying officers have lied in the past—and the state Supreme Court ruling in Pitchess v. Superior Court that permitted defendants limited discovery of officers’ personnel files.

Participants are also asked whether there should be any limitation on exercise of blanket peremptory challenges to judges under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.6. Current law allows a district attorney’s or public defender’s office to virtually remove a judge from the criminal bench by vowing never to agree to bring a case before him or her.

Ventura Public Defender Kenneth Clayman, who was interviewed by the task force in January, said he was encouraged by the intelligence of the questions and the attitude of the panelists.

“They gave me the impression of a commission that was doing the right thing, that didn’t have an ax to grind, and was brave enough to make recommendations that could make a real difference in the administration of the criminal justice system,” Clayman said.

Clayman, a former Los Angeles deputy public defender, said much of his presentation concerned the need for changes in funding the defense, to assure an adequate balance of resources. Although public defender offices in California generally are well-funded, he said, prosecutors often get special funding for vertical prosecution and other programs that are not matched on the defense side.

He also noted that while prosecutors have fulltime staff investigators, public defense counsel in Los Angeles have to rely on judges to approve extra money for investigation and often draw the line at less than the amount defense lawyers say they need. In his office, he noted, he gets investigation expenses from the county supervisors as a line item in each year’s budget.

Private defense attorney Michael Adelson, of the Los Angeles firm of Epstein, Adelson & Rubin, said he told the panel of his concerns about post-Proposition 115 preliminary hearings and the lack of percipient witness testimony.

“It doesn’t allow anybody the chance the develop the evidence,” Adelson told the MetNews. “It used to be that a great number of cases were dismissed at the preliminary hearing after you were given the opportunity to hear the evidence. By taking that opportunity away nobody knows where they’re at until the trial date.”

He added that because of changes in the preliminary hearings and other reforms, and because of the sheer enormity of the caseload in Los Angeles County, the focus of judges has shifted over the years “from quality to speed.”

“That is not what the system is supposed to be about,” Adelson said. “Virtually everybody that spoke to the task force was complaining that the preliminary hearing, as it is now, does not meet the ends of justice.”

The task force has also received direct input from Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, District Attorney Steve Cooley, Superior Court Presiding Judge James Bascue, Public Defender Michael Judge, Alternate Public Defender Bruce Hoffman, LACBA Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments panel directing attorney Cathy Dreyfuss, and others.

Collins said the panel has divided into four committees, focusing on courts, defense, prosecution, and the dual role—misdemeanor prosecution and civil defense of the city and police officers—that the City Attorney’s Office has in Los Angeles and cost other cities around the state.

Once task force members have had a chance to study the questionnaire responses, Collins said, the committees will begin preparing draft recommendations. Those are expected by the end of May, when the panel is to begin working through them and hammering out a final set of proposals.

Some may call for legislative reforms, others simply for policy adjustments in the courts or other institutions.

Collins said the mere fact that the task force has made inquiries into certain functions has already led to reforms, although she declined to specify.

Questionnaire data is being sifted by the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company