Tuesday, April 14, 2020
Money Would Be Taken From Budget of Public Defender’s Office Which, a Judge Declared In 2016, Botched Representation of the Client, Resulting in Constitutional Rights Deprivation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Coming before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at its meeting today is a recommendation that $2.8 million be snipped from the budget of the Public Defender’s Office and awarded a man who spent 13 years, nine months, and 10 days in pre-trial detention awaiting action on a petition to civilly commit him as a sexually violent predator.
If approved, as expected, the money will go to Gaspar Zavala in settlement of his civil rights action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. One continuance after another occurred while Zavala was represented by the Office of Public Defender.
The laggardness of that office in such cases was spotlighted by a 2018 Court of Appeal opinion which pointed to a “systematic breakdown in the public defender system.” That opinion came in response to a writ petition by the Office of District Attorney opposing the immediate release, without a trial on its petition for a civil commitment, of a man who was still detained 17 years after the filing of that petition.
In Zavala’s case, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maria Stratton removed the Public Defender’s Office from representing Zavala and, declaring his incarceration to have been unconstitutional, on Aug. 3, 2016, dismissed the petition that had been filed by the District Attorney’s Office on Nov. 1, 2002.
Zavala was released from Coalinga State Hospital on Aug. 12, 2016.
He brought his federal action on May 24, 2018. Named as defendants were the county, the Public Defender’s Office, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, former Public Defender Ronald Brown, former Chief Deputy Public Defender Kelly Emling, and Michael Suzuki, a Public Defender’s Office division chief.
District Court Judge S. James Otero on April 23, 2019, dismissed Brown, Emling, and Suzuki as defendants, declaring that “the focus” of Zavala’s allegations was “on actions taken pursuant to Plaintiff’s legal representation.” He said that “the discretionary decisions of the individual public defenders acting within the scope of their legal representation” are not within the ambit of the relevant civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. §1983, which pertains to actions “under color” of authority.
Otero did not dismiss Ridley-Brown as a defendant. The supervisor was sued for failing to intervene on Zavala’s part.
Legislative immunity did not apply, Otero said, because no legislation was involved, and qualified immunity was unavailable because that is defeated where a governmental official acts in contravention of a “clearly established” constitutional or statutory right. He wrote:
“The constitutional rights at issue in this case are Plaintiff’s rights to due process and a speedy trial under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. As evidenced by Judge Stratton’s ruling on the matter, there is no dispute that Plaintiffs 13 year pre-trial detention is a violation of both of these constitutional rights. It is equally apparent that Plaintiffs Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were ‘clearly established’ at the time of the actions alleged in the [complaint].”
Board of Claims
The county Board of Claims, at its March 2 meeting, voted 3-0 to recommend the payment to Zavala. On Sept. 29, the plaintiff provided notice to the District Court that the parties had “reached a tentative settlement of the entire action…subject to the approval by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.”
Principal Deputy County Counsel Jonathan McCaverty had assured the Board of Claims that “a full and final settlement of the case is warranted.” He disclosed that county had already paid $248,691 in attorney fees and $4,977 in costs.
The board had before it a Dec. 16, 2109, analysis by county Risk Management Inspector General Destiny Castro, who explained the root cause of the litigation:
“Staffing reductions in the special unit resulted in continuances by attorneys who believed they had insufficient resources to take the cases to trial; failure to obtain clear time waivers from clients who preferred to remain at the state hospital during court appearances.”
The Office of District Attorney had petitioned to have Zavala civilly committed as a sexually violent predator as he neared the end of a nine-year prison term.
The 2018 Court of Appeal decision came in People v. Superior Court (Vasquez). The opinion was authored by Justice Gail Feuer of Div. Seven, who wrote:
“We conclude that while a substantial portion of the delay here resulted from the failure of individual appointed attorneys to move Vasquez’s case forward, the extraordinary length of the delay resulted from ‘a systemic ‘breakdown in the public defender system,’ and must be attributed to the state….This breakdown forced Vasquez to choose between having prepared counsel and a timely trial. Yet under our Constitution he had a right to both.”
She said that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Bianco “did not err in finding that Vasquez’s due process right to a timely trial was violated,” denying the District Attorney’s Office’s petition.
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