07/13/2012 11:52 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012

Playing a Shell Game With the Truth: The District Attorney's Evidence Policies

Imagine you've walked into your local library branch and you want to check out the classic Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Now imagine that the librarian tells you to go search the stacks -- organized not by book title or by author, but by the name of the person who last checked the book out. Happy hunting.

Welcome to the filing system of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. In this era of unprecedented criticism and scrutiny of the sheriff's department, it's the L.A.S.D.'s official policy to file complaints against deputies only by the inmate who filed the complaint -- not the offending deputy. That's despite a statute that explicitly requires them to file them by deputy name.

So if Deputy Smith assaults six inmates on six different occasions at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, those six complaints against the deputy are housed in six different inmates' files. But Deputy Smith's personnel file remains clear. Deputy Smith remains free to testify against inmates who are charged with assaulting Deputy Smith, and the accused inmate and his lawyer cannot discover the complaints against Deputy Smith.

In the 21st century, the only explanation for a filing system this bad, I believe, is that it was designed to hide the truth. It's one part of L.A.'s broken criminal justice system, which seems to be designed to hide exculpatory evidence from criminal defendants. In addition to the sheriff's system, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office enforces a policy that prohibits its prosecutors from turning over huge amounts of exculpatory evidence, despite California Penal Code 1054.1(e), which requires the D.A. to turn over all exculpatory information.

In effect, L.A.S.D. and the district attorney appear to be rigging the system against criminal defendants.

This is important to people like Andrew Contreras, who was assaulted by two sheriff's deputies in Men's Central Jail after a visit from his girlfriend. He was hospitalized for his injuries, but the D.A. charged Contreras with battery against a peace officer, resisting an officer in the performance of his duties, plus four more counts. Contreras' lawyer filed a motion seeking information about complaints against the deputies involved. We know now that there was at least one inmate complaint, as well as a sworn statement, describing the deputy involved -- Victor Beas -- assaulting another inmate in Men's Central Jail. But because of the policies of the L.A.S.D. and the district attorney, that evidence was not turned over to Mr. Contreras and his lawyer.

We have no idea how many guilty pleas and guilty verdicts have stemmed from these potentially illegal practices, but we have to stop this before it goes any further.

The ACLU has sued the Sheriff's Department and Los Angeles District attorney, seeking to halt the policies that could be suppressing exculpatory evidence in criminal trials. The lawsuit asks the court to order the sheriff's department to reform its filing system so that abusive deputies' records can be discovered in criminal trials when relevant. The suit also seeks an order requiring the district attorney to turn over all exculpatory evidence in criminal trial. L.A. County must keep its system fair for all defendants.