New mental health courts launch next week across California, and in Orange County the program is being run by a former prosecutor who was fired after a federal Department of Justice investigation found he ran a program that systematically violated prisoner’s civil rights.
OC Superior Court Judge Ebrahim Baytieh is slated to run the new court program, dubbed CARE Court, which allows judges to put homeless people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse issues into a court-mandated program for up to two years.
CARE court in Orange County begins Oct. 2.
While the program is seen as controversial by the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, Baytieh himself is no stranger to controversy.
Baytieh, who won his election for judge in 2022, has faced major questions around his work at the District Attorney’s office and whether or not he violated inmates’ civil rights by allowing them to be interviewed without their attorneys present – a fact that wasn’t disclosed during those inmates’ trials.
Paid snitches carried out those secret interviews in the county jail, who were strategically placed around certain prisoners to pull information from them that was then shared with the sheriff’s department and prosecutors.
Earlier this month, OC Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders claimed Baytieh’s failure to disclose those illegal interviews to prisoners could give hundreds of convicted criminals new trials in a written motion to the court.
“Baytieh will soon be recognized as the principal architect of an evidence disclosure disaster unlike any other in this nation’s history,” Sanders wrote. “No other state or federal court has been confronted with a comparable quantity of cases infected with discovery violations.”
Kostas Kalaitzidis, the court’s press information officer, declined to comment on behalf of Baytieh, citing the court’s code of ethics preventing judges from speaking on cases before the bench.
During his campaign for judge, Baytieh refused to speak on the issue.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice found the snitch program resulted in “systematic” violations of inmates’ rights.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department operated a [jail] informant program that systematically violated criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law,” federal Justice Department officials wrote in a news release last year.
Now, Baytieh is heading up the CARE court program that could push people into conservatorship – a program spearheaded by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year in his effort to curb homelessness.
“The plan focuses on people with schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, who may also have substance use challenges, and who lack medical decision-making capacity,” wrote Newsom’s office in a memo explaining the program. “Participants who do not successfully complete Care Plans may, under current law, be hospitalized or referred to conservatorship.”
The court-ordered plans are raising concerns from civil rights advocates, since it opens the door for mentally ill residents to be forced into a conservatorship by family, first responders, or even the county government.
Human Rights Watch, which typically monitors rights abuses in other countries, lambasted CARE court when the proposal was first unveiled last year.
“This approach not only robs individuals of dignity and autonomy but is also coercive and likely ineffective,” reads a statement from the organization. “CARE Courts are designed to force unhoused people with mental health conditions into coerced treatment that will not comprehensively and compassionately address their needs.”
Newsom dismissed the concerns when he signed the CARE court bill into law last year, saying something needs to be done to help people struggling with mental health and substance abuse on the streets.
“It’s one thing to receive an opposition letter from four letter groups that have been out there for 30, 40 years understandably holding hands talking about the way the world should be,” Newsom said. “It’s another to say well that’s wonderful, but what about my damn daughter — what are you going to do for her? Because this isn’t working.”
For years, Baytieh was one of the department’s best prosecutors, winning over 50 murder trials and receiving the Outstanding Prosecutor of the Year award from the California District Attorneys’ Association in 2012.
His work was praised by both former DA Tony Rackacuckas and current DA Todd Spitzer.
“Ebrahim is the first person to share credit with others, say thank you, and be a team player,” wrote Rackauckas in a press release when he promoted Baytieh to senior assistant DA in 2018. “His dogged intensity and work ethic make him formidable.”
Spitzer also praised Baytieh at a victim’s rally in 2021, describing him as one of “the best prosecutors in the entire nation,” and told the OC Register in April of that year that Baytieh was someone he went to for guidance.
“I kept Ebrahim because Ebrahim’s a North Star, he’s someone you look up to to guide you,” Spitzer said. “He’s someone I listen to a lot.”
Less than a year later, Spitzer fired Baytieh after a Department of Justice investigation found that he’d improperly withheld evidence in at least one major murder case, which ultimately saw a conviction get overturned.
But Baytieh’s firing also came as he publicly called out Spitzer for discussing a defendants’ race when deciding what penalties to seek in court, something prosecutors aren’t allowed to do without disclosing it to the defense.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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