Orange County D.A. Sued by ACLU, Others after Failing to Provide Access to Public Records

(Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

By Britney Cao

SANTA ANA, CA – The Orange County District Attorney, Todd Spitzer, was sued this week by Chicanxs Unidxs de Orange County, the ACLU Foundations of Southern California and Northern California, and the Peace and Justice Law Center for violating the Public Records Act (PRA).

Robert Ponce, a legal associate with the ACLU SoCal, stated, “Spitzer campaigned on the promise to usher in a new era of prosecutorial ethics and transparency in Orange County. But since taking office, the OCDA has systematically flouted state law by sitting on public records for over a year.”

Both the ACLU of NorCal, ACLU of SoCal, as well as Chicanxs Unidxs, have separately submitted requests for the OCDA prosecutorial data in 2021 and 2022, in part to monitor the compliance with the Racial Justice Act.

Since 2020, states are no longer able to convict or sentence any person based upon race, ethnicity, or national origin, as outlined by the California Racial Justice Act. The Act permits each person to dispute proceedings that have been suggested to be ruled based on racial bias, by allowing the public to access policies and data from prosecutors.

As a response to their requests, the OCDA did not present any data and provided only unsupported and broad exemptions, according to the legal action. Plaintiffs also said the OCDA claimed the county does not maintain records in the certain format that was requested, using that as a reason to refuse to provide records.

Co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center and attorney for the Chicanxs Unidxs, Sean Garcia-Leys, argued, “The OCDA’s stonewalling of legal requests denies our right to know who is getting charged for what crimes, and whether people of color are locked up more often or for longer sentences.”

He added, “The Racial Justice Act is a powerful tool, but it only works if we have basic information about how prosecutors wield their extraordinary power. Transparency matters to accountability.”

Plaintiffs allege the OCDA has had a history of power abuse, and instead of disproving such claims, Spitzer decided to defend the prosecutorial decision making from accountability.

Emi Maclean, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of NorCal said, “Californians have a constitutional right to know what prosecutors are doing in our name. Yet the OCDA is refusing to produce the exact same data that he disclosed from the time of his predecessor three years ago. What is Spitzer hiding?”

In the 2017 and 2018 ACLU report, there was data claiming there were racial disparities in numerous prosecutions under former DA Tony Rackauckas. The ACLU also revealed in a 2019 and 2020 report Spitzer’s attorneys have been similarly criminalizing people for low-level offenses, such as substance abuse or poverty.

The ACLU added that, in June of 2021, Spitzer was deemed the first district attorney to violate the Racial Justice Act, underscoring the need for consistent transparency when dealing with prosecutorial data.

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU requests the court rule the OCDA must adhere with the Public Records Act and provide the necessary information when asked by plaintiffs. This suit also requests requiring the OCDA to report public data regularly online.

About The Author

Britney Cao is a 2nd year undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis. She is currently majoring in Political Science and is considering a minor in Statistics. She strives to bring political awareness and clarity to her community and has a passion for political activism. Britney intends to continue her education at law school and hopes to get a license to practice law. She intends to bring justice to those in need.

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