Prison Legal News
From a Press Release
March 3, 2009
The Prison Legal News has challenged the LA County Sheriff’s Department attempt to withhold information about awards in cases brought by prisoners against jail staff. Until recently, information about settlements and verdicts had been available online. -DB
LOS ANGELES – Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that reports on corrections and criminal justice-related issues, filed suit today in Superior Court against Los Angeles County, the Sheriff’s Department and the Office of County Counsel, to obtain public records under the Public Records Act.
On January 29, 2008, PLN submitted a request to the Sheriff’s Department for records related to successful claims and litigation against the Sheriff’s office, including payouts in settlements and verdicts resulting from tort, overdetention and civil rights claims involving jail prisoners and employees.
For example, in recent years Los Angeles County has paid settlements and damage awards in cases brought by jail prisoners that involved rape and assaults by other prisoners, wrongful deaths, excessive force by jail staff, deficient medical care, and wrongful convictions.
Until fairly recently the County regularly posted such settlement and verdict information on its website, but that is no longer the case. The decision to shroud these cases in secrecy by not making them publicly available online was decried at the time by the media and government watchdog groups.
PLN filed suit after the Office of County Counsel, which represents the Sheriff’s Department, argued that some of the requested documents may be exempt from disclosure and that it would not be “reasonably possible” to conduct a search for the documents responsive to the request; none of the requested records were produced despite PLN’s willingness to work with the County to facilitate the search and production.
The lawsuit, which names Sheriff Leroy Baca as a defendant, notes that pursuant to state law, “public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has as right to inspect any public record.” PLN’s position is that the release of the requested records is in the public interest, would shed light on the operations of the Sheriff’s Department, and would provide the public with a better understanding of how the County’s jail system is managed.
“The public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent and whether payouts in lawsuits involving the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are indicative of ongoing problems that need to be addressed,” stated PLN editor Paul Wright. “Further, the Sheriff’s Department has a responsibility and obligation to follow state law, including the Public Records Act. They have failed to do so.”
According to Elizabeth Eng, one of the attorneys for PLN, “The records at issue here are public documents requested by public-interest journalists recognized for their expertise in prison issues. The County clearly is required to produce them.”
The case is Prison Legal News v. Los Angeles County, Superior Court, County of Los Angeles, Case No. BS119336. PLN is represented by Sanford Jay Rosen, Kenneth M. Walczak and Elizabeth H. Eng of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, a San Francisco law firm, and Najeeb N. Khoury and Padraic Glaspy of Howarth & Smith, a Los Angeles law firm.
Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities.