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ACLU Suit Alleges Failure of Court to Hold Swift Trials

February 02, 1988|TED ROHRLICH | Times Staff Writer

The Superior Court in Los Angeles, already the target of a lawsuit by the county Bar Assn. for allegedly failing to process civil cases speedily enough, was sued Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that the court does not dispose of criminal cases with the swiftness the Constitution guarantees.

The ACLU filed its class-action complaint in federal court in Los Angeles on behalf of the more than 22,000 inmates crowded into Los Angeles County's jails. The complaint took the form of a request to intervene in the bar association's lawsuit.

The civil liberties group acknowledged that the Superior Court administration has been swamped by a near-doubling of felony cases in the last six years and by a huge and growing backlog of civil cases, many of which take five years to reach trial.

Poor Judgments Charged

But the ACLU charged that the court's efforts to cope with its crowded calendars have been marked by poor judgments that have made matters worse.

Inefficiency, it said, has resulted in denial of due process for pretrial inmates whose stays in overcrowded conditions are longer than necessary, and has resulted in pretrial guilty pleas that are, in effect, coerced.

The lawsuit focused on alleged procedural weaknesses, in particular the court's reluctance to "adequately" increase the number of courtrooms that handle criminal matters full time.

Expanding full-time criminal courts would mean asking the county Board of Supervisors for money to hire additional public defenders and county prosecutors to staff them, the ACLU said.

Instead, the Superior Court leadership has traditionally asked the board for civil court judges whose courtrooms do not require such staffing. Then, to handle the enormous increase in criminal case filings, which are entitled to priority over civil cases, the Superior Court leadership diverts civil judges to hear criminal matters part time.

Backlog Gets Worse

Because the press of criminal cases has resulted in many such diversions recently, the ACLU said, the practice has worsened the civil backlog. But it has not solved the criminal case crush.

Instead, the ACLU charged, it has "decreased the efficiency" of the district attorney's and public defender's offices, because lawyers from those offices, assigned to the full-time criminal courts, must leave to handle cases in the courtrooms of civil judges. Their departures make them "unavailable for motions and other pretrial activities" in the full-time criminal courts and result in delays that aggravate "an already excessive Superior Court continuance rate."

These delays mean that accused felons must stay in jail longer, aggravating overcrowding in a jail population that has exploded from 8,000 to 22,000 inmates in less than a decade.

Although state law gives defendants the right to demand a trial within 60 days of their being formally charged with a crime, more than 1,000 accused felons have been waiting in jail more than six months for their trials, the ACLU said. "Hundreds" remain in jail for more than a year awaiting trial.

The civil liberties group said that the Superior Court has refused to implement a state law aimed at controlling delays by requiring judges to hold hearings before granting them.

Concern for Delays

Continuances result in accused felons being shuttled repeatedly between courts and jail--each time spending the day under conditions so adverse that a federal judge in a separate jail overcrowding lawsuit has found them to be unconstitutional.

"If you can't bail out, you're screwed," said John Hagar, the attorney who filed the suit for the ACLU. "You spend a lot of time going back and forth until you get tired."

"Hundreds of felony defendants are simply 'lost' in the Superior Court's inadequate record system," the ACLU said in the suit, resulting in more delays.

A large majority of accused felons wind up pleading guilty to a reduced charge in a plea bargain.

But the ACLU argued in its suit that some of these guilty pleas are coerced.

One factor involved in the coercion, the group said, has been a decline in the adequacy of representation the public defender's office can offer to indigent accused felons. Diverting civil judges has stretched thin the public defender's office ranks, the ACLU said. "Many (deputy) public defenders now carry felony case loads exceeding 100 cases."

Plea Bargain Issue

In addition, the ACLU said, "a de facto system of punishing in-custody indigent felony defendants has developed, wherein those jail inmates who demand a trial and are subsequently found guilty are subject to more severe sentencing; consequently, indigent pre-sentenced felony defendants confined to jail are forced to accept plea bargains instead of going to trial on the charges against them."

County supervisors, a target of the lawsuit by the bar association, were also named as defendants in the complaint by the ACLU for failing to provide enough public defenders "because of the diversion policy" of the court.

Also named as defendants were the court's executive committee--a group of 15 judges who provide administrative leadership--and the court's executive officer.

The executive officer, Frank Zolin, said he had no comment. Calls to the court's presiding judge, Jack Goertzen, and Public Defender Wilbur Littlefield were not returned.

The ACLU charged that court leaders could solve some of their problems by having more judges and lawyers work a night shift. But court leaders, the ACLU said, oppose expanding a small two-shift operation, because they say it is inefficient. The ACLU said it believes the real reason is that judges just do not want to work nights.

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