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Horse-and-Buggy Life in the City Attorney's Office

March 30, 1997|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn

Whoever wins the city attorney's race will be little more than a caretaker of Los Angeles' legal affairs unless he can persuade the mayor and the City Council to pay for bringing the office into the late 20th century. So far, that has not been an easy task.

Ted Stein, who is challenging 12-year incumbent James K. Hahn, has railed at the increase in liability claims paid out by the city. But he hasn't mentioned the fact that many of the claims were meritorious. With the city's infrastructure deteriorating because there isn't enough money to maintain it, property damage and liability claims have increased. This trend will continue until more money is found to finance maintenance and improvements. The longer the delay in repairs, the greater the city's liability exposure. This is also true for workers' compensation claims filed by injured city employees.

Nor can Stein fairly blame Hahn for liabilities arising from police excesses. Like any litigant, the city must pay when it creates dangerous conditions.

What makes many of Stein's charges ironic is that his biggest supporter, Mayor Richard Riordan, has steadfastly opposed increasing the City Attorney Office's budget for desperately needed improvements. When first elected, the mayor, a lawyer himself, toured Hahn's office. He discovered, among other things, that its Civil Division was understaffed, using decade-old computer technology and operating with a chronic shortage of funds--burdens that city lawyers were carrying into the courtroom.

Ever since, Hahn has recited Riordan's observations in appealing to the City Council for more money, but to little avail. His annual requests for additional funding have largely been rejected.

Hahn's bids for more funding long antedate Riordan. But only this year did his office receive the money necessary--$4.1 million--to upgrade its archaic computer system, install e-mail capability for his staff and start a computerized database for case tracking.

He's had no such luck at getting funds to hire paralegals, even though more paralegals would reduce the city's need to hire full-fledged--and more expensive--lawyers. Result: Deputy city attorneys are, in effect, "runners." They must personally file papers in court instead of using messengers; they must type their own briefs instead of dictating them; they must do their own photocopying and myriad other chores that are wasteful of what Hercule Poirot called "the little gray cells" that are supposed to be used for lawyering. By not hiring paralegals, the city is wasting several million dollars of attorney time that could be done by less trained personnel.

Despite these handicaps, most of the city's civil litigators can outperform their counterparts in court, owing to the fact that they broke in as prosecutors in the office's Criminal Division. They are relaxed in the courtroom because they accumulated hundreds of hours of criminal-trial experience before being transferred to the liability side of the office.

What these lawyers do not have, because the city will not pay the fees, is easy access to online computerized legal databases, which is near-mandatory for a solo practitioner, much less a large municipal law office. Denying appropriations for such legal tools--it takes Lexis five minutes to find legal precedents, compared with hours, even days, the old-fashioned way--transcends mere shortsightedness. It is as if the mayor and council wished to encourage malpractice by their own legal staff.

Criminal-jury trials have fallen from nearly 1,900 a year, in the late 1970s, to the current 650 a year. But the falloff is not the result of prosecutorial sloth. Rather, the County Jail is so overcrowded that there is little chance of a long jail term for a misdemeanor conviction. Whereas a "year" used to mean 270 days in custody, after factoring in "good time" and "work time" credits, today it entails as few as 30 days.

Put simply, there is almost no downside to pleading "guilty." Indeed, a defendant pleading "not guilty" will likely spend more time in jail than if he or she copped a plea in court.

The most enduring--and intractable--problem plaguing the City Attorney's Office is endemic to the office. Because of their limited jurisdiction--city attorneys try only misdemeanors--deputy city attorneys have no perspective whatsoever on the full range of criminal behavior. Thus, the office files an appalling number of meritless cases: loud-music complaints; vendors without city licenses; petty thefts of food and loitering with intent to commit prostitution, among others. Deputies end up asking for jail time for convicted prostitutes when there is no room in jail for them.

Compounding the problem is that the Los Angeles Police Department lacks the resources to carry out follow-up investigations of misdemeanors. As a result, city prosecutors do not enjoy the advantage of being able to call a detective to the stand. Which all too often means that their cases begin to fall apart when they learn that the police report bears little, if any, relationship to reality.

The wonder is that anyone would willingly seek to head the City Attorney's Office. Denied money to make the department competitive with private law firms and blamed for every unpopular civil judgment against the city, the city attorney is an easy target in Los Angeles' political cross-fire. Sadly, a vote for Hahn or Stein is unlikely to change this state of affairs.

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