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Los Angeles

Inglewood Bucks Trend, Shreds Files

Law: City prosecutors cite storage limitations for destruction of closed criminal files. Lawyers in other jurisdictions express surprise at the practice.

September 28, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Inglewood city attorney's office has been routinely destroying its criminal files once cases are closed, a practice unheard of in almost all other Los Angeles County prosecutorial offices.

Attorneys at most prosecutorial offices say they are duty-bound to maintain records on criminal cases--current or closed--for several years.

But Inglewood Assistant City Atty. Kenneth Campos said his office simply does not have room to keep all criminal case files.

"Our office is too small," he said. "We have a shredder, and everything goes into it."

Campos said his office can always review the court file or ask the Inglewood Police Department for its records.

Torrance City Atty. John Fellows said his office also destroys its criminal files once there is a conviction or an acquittal, saying it is a storage issue.

In contrast, the Los Angeles and Pasadena city attorney's offices said they retain criminal records for 10 years, Burbank for seven years, and Long Beach for two to seven years.

"We err on the side of keeping them a long time," said Santa Monica City Atty. Marsha Moutrie, whose office keeps records for 15 years on closed domestic violence cases and 10 years on all other criminal cases.

Moutrie said it is critical to retain criminal records because many defendants are repeat offenders.

State law requires the retention of city records for at least two years unless an electronic copy is made, several municipal attorneys said. Duplicates of the records may be destroyed if they no longer are required, according to the government code.

But city attorneys said they often produce notes or records that are not duplicated and may be needed down the line.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office typically retains misdemeanor records at least two years and felony files--many on microfiche--dating back to the 1960s, said head Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay.

"They become historical files, and you never know when you are going to need something," he said.

After Inglewood Police Officers Jeremy Morse and Bijan Darvish were indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury in July in connection with the videotaped beating of a 16-year-old boy, the county public defender's office requested the case names and numbers of all cases that involved the two officers.

The request was made to the Inglewood city attorney and the Los Angeles County district attorney.

The office also asked the Inglewood Police Department for the numbers of any police reports that named Darvish, Morse and two other officers who were present during the July 6 incident.

Deputy Public Defender Randall Rich said the pending criminal charges against Darvish and Morse raise questions about other cases in which the officers either took part in an arrest or investigation, or were witnesses.

Morse is charged with assault under the color of authority and Darvish is charged with filing a false police report. The office plans to review the old cases to see if those defendants have grounds for new trials or be declared factually innocent.

Because the public defender's office does not have a database connecting police officers to defendants, Rich said, the office relies on law enforcement agencies to provide that information.

The district attorney's office handed over a list of the 60 felony cases involving Morse and the 57 cases involving Darvish.

The Inglewood city attorney's office gave the public defender's office the names and numbers of open cases in which the two officers were involved and in which the public defender was the attorney. There were fewer than 10 such cases. The closed case files had been destroyed, Campos said. Misdemeanor cases are usually completed within three months, he said.

Campos responded to the records request by the public defender's office with a letter that read: "The Inglewood city attorney's office does not maintain any files that are not pending in criminal court. All closed files are shredded when the case is completed."

Besides, Campos said, it would be too burdensome to review the court files or the Police Department records to see which old cases involved the two officers.

The Inglewood city attorney's office prosecutes more than 5,000 misdemeanor cases each year.

Campos also said that the public defender does not have a right to the cases in which it did not serve as the attorney.

"Unfortunately, the public defender is trying to find something we can't help them with," he said.

Rich, the deputy public defender, said the fact that the Inglewood city attorney destroys its files so quickly is "just astounding."

The public defender's office plans to continue pressuring the city attorney's office for the records, he said.

"The fact that the city attorney may not have the information does not mean the information does not exist," Rich said.

And regardless of whether the public defender's office gets cooperation from Inglewood, he said, "We'll do whatever we can to ensure that our clients' files are reviewed."

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