Orange County residents will get a new look at who’s being prosecuted by the District Attorney after the ACLU and Chicansx Unidx de Orange County won a lawsuit against the county’s top prosecutor, requiring the disclosure of the race of people who are charged.
The new data comes a year after DA Todd Spitzer was accused by his own prosecutors for improperly discussing race during a meeting deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black defendant, which prosecutors said needed to be disclosed to the defendant’s attorneys.
According to internal DA memos reviewed by Voice of OC, Spitzer threw everyone in that meeting off the case, and later fired one of the prosecutors who raised a complaint.
The DA has committed to releasing the data within the next 30 days according to the ACLU, who celebrated the court’s decision along with Chicansx Unidx de Orange County in a statement.
“The court has made it clear OCDA owes the public that data. Chicanxs Unidxs will use this information to help the people overcharged by Spitzer’s office to make sure they get fair treatment in court,” said Gabriela Hernandez in a statement. “When we filed the lawsuit, Spitzer’s office said it was a ‘frivolous lawsuit’ and ‘completely divorced from reality.’”
“What happened in court shows that was a lie.”
While Spitzer’s office released racial data behind prosecutions from the prior DA Tony Rackauckas, he has refused to release any of the data on who was charged under his own administration.
“All available evidence suggests that the office’s policies and practices have not shifted substantially under the current OCDA,” wrote the ACLU in a report last year titled In(Justice) in Orange County, which criticized how the DA’s office chose to prosecute cases.
“Close to two-thirds (64 percent) of all charges filed in those two years (2017 and 2018) were low-level offenses that should be either declined to charge or diverted pre-filing,” the ACLU’s report stated.
Kimberly Edds, Spitzer’s spokesperson, said they were fighting the release of the records because the ACLU was trying to also get the names of people who were being prosecuted.
“California law prohibits the release of non-anonymized criminal history information in order to protect the privacy rights of defendants and as such the ACLU was never entitled to receive that information,” Edds wrote in a text to Voice of OC.
“In the midst of litigation, the ACLU suddenly changed course and dropped its request for non-anonymized data,” she continued. “We are in the process of complying with what is now a lawful public records act request.”
Emi MacLean, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said the DA also refused to turn over non-anonymized data for three years.
“This post-hoc justification was just one more attempt to cover up the DA’s efforts to hide what they are doing in the public’s name,” MacLean said in a statement to Voice of OC. “Ultimately, the most important thing is that the DA will stop stonewalling, and the public will have access to what the prosecutor is doing.”
In their initial filings with the court, the DA’s office claimed the lawsuit was a “thinly-veiled attempt,” to force the DA to release the data before the state deadline of 2027, and that it would violate people’s privacy.
In a tentative ruling released Aug. 22, Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm said while the DA could hold back some attorney-client work product and they were justified in making the information anonymous, the data still had to be released.
“Petitioners are entitled to receive ‘statistical or research information’ obtained from OCDA’s records, as long as identifying information about the subjects of the records, e.g., names and birthdates, is not disclosed,” Schwarm wrote.
MacLean called the decision a win for transparency.
“Injustice thrives in secrecy,” MacLean said. “This victory is critical to accountability and the public’s right to know what prosecutors are doing in our name.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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