OC Activists Wait on DA Data
By Dianne Anderson
As a recent ACLU lawsuit against the Orange County District Attorney demands to see what the county is hiding, activists wait for data to show what they already know – that Black and Brown people are unfairly prosecuted more than other groups.
Gabriela Hernandez, speaking as plaintiff of Chicanxs Unidxs, said for two years, the OCDA has illegally hid Racial Justice Act data from the public.
“The court has made it clear OCDA owes the public that data. Chicanxs Unidxs will use this information to help the people overcharged by Spitzer’s office to make sure they get fair treatment in court. When we filed the lawsuit, Spitzer’s office said it was a ‘frivolous lawsuit’ and ‘completely divorced from reality.’ What happened in court shows that was a lie,” Hernandez said in a statement.
Christopher Meza, criminal justice chair for the Orange County Chapter NAACP, said he is interested to see the outcome, given that Todd Spitzer has described the suit as frivolous.
But Mesa is more concerned that the 30 day window to produce anonymized data may be hard to confirm, and he worries about the quality of the data. He said the numbers produced by the District Attorney is like the fox guarding the hen house.
“It’s not just to attack the fox, but to say, hey fox can you turn over good quality data after you said that data itself is frivolous? Now that he’s been ordered to do it, what kind of job is he going to do?” he said.
He said the local branch hopes to create a system of change within Orange County to address unfair harsh practices that are disproportionately used against people of color.
“It seems like there’s a playbook, to overcharge indictments and criminal charges, and set the bail amount as possible, to get someone to plea to something. Any kind of tactic to win at all costs,” he said.
With prosecutorial data anonymized, meaning all names, personal information and addresses, have been removed, he wonders if it will be missing key components, or if components are deliberately withheld from the public.
He feels that people should be concerned about what to do with someone in leadership that is supposed to uphold the law, but doesn’t want to comply with the law.
“We have someone that doesn’t want to comply with the law. Now that he’s being forced to do it, how good of a job is he going to do?” he said.
The data should be available by the last week of September.
Although the Orange County Chapter of National Action Network isn’t directly involved with this particular case, the local chapter did lead the charge in calling for Spitzer’s resignation last year.
“We were the ones that called for Spitzer’s resignation. The judge did rule that he violated the racial act in regards to the issue that we were demanding he would resign for,” said Darlene Futrel, president of the National Action Network Orange County Chapter.
Futrel hopes the numbers will adequately reflect what everyone knows is the reality.
“They [ACLU and Chicano Unidos] want to get the data to see what we already know that Brown and Black people are getting arrested and convicted more than any other race. And yet, we as Black people are 2.5% of the population, are the most arrested and most convicted,” she said.
In the past, Futrel has taken issue with the pattern of Black people being upcharged with Spitzer at the helm, while whites are undercharged. Last year, NAN OC and several other Orange County organizations met at Attorney General Rob Bonta’s Office with a letter written by the ACLU calling for an investigation.
Then, one controversy involving Spitzer was a memo obtained by ABC Eyewitness News released by former Senior Assistant D.A. Ebrahim Baytieh about a discussion Spitzer had with eight prosecutors over sentencing for Jamon Buggs, a Black man accused of a double homicide. In seeking the death penalty, Baytieh described Spitzer’s comments on whether Buggs was dating a white woman, and that Black men choose white women to get ahead in life.
After releasing that memo, Baytieh was fired from Spitzer’s office for allegedly improperly handling evidence on a prior unrelated case.
In a 2022 report, In(Justice) in Orange County: A Case for Change And Accountability, the ACLU of Northern California called for urgent changes in charging decisions, sentencing, addressing racism and racial disparities, among several other recommendations.
“Black people are clearly overrepresented among individuals charged with a crime in Orange County. Although Black people represent just over 2 percent of the total population, they represent nearly 6 percent of people charged by the OCDA,” the report said.
The current lawsuit is the result of Chicanxs Unidxs de Orange County, the ACLU Foundations of Southern California and Northern California, and the Peace and Justice Law Center’s challenge last October to the DA’s violations of the Public Records Act.
After the Racial Justice Act took effect in early 2021 for the public to access the Public Records Act upon request, the Orange County DA set up a policy to prohibit access to all prosecutorial data. The ACLU said that after years of stonewalling, Spitzer must abide by the Orange County Superior Court decision that the public must have access to the prosecutorial data within 30 days.
Emi MacLean, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and counsel for plaintiffs, said injustice thrives in secrecy and that DA Spitzer has tried for years to hide information from the public about how his office prosecutes people.
“Yesterday, a judge finally rejected those efforts. DA Spitzer will now start producing important records critical to implementing the Racial Justice Act. Transparency has won,” said MacLean in a release. “This victory is critical to accountability and the public’s right to know what prosecutors are doing in our name.”
For the ACLU report, see https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/ocda-report-022822.pdf
For NAACP OC, see https://www.naacpoc.org/
For OC NAN, see https://nationalactionnetwork.net/