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Scandals continue to mount for Orange County D.A.

DA Tony Rackauckas
Office of the Orange County District Attorney

Scandals continue to mount for Orange County D.A.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, currently serving his fourth term as the elected prosecutor of the sixth most populous county in the United States, has vowed to seek reelection in 2018. Although he won reelection in 2014 with over 73% of the vote, the longtime prosecutor has been plagued by scandals that put his political future in doubt.

In January 2016, a special committee — established by Rackauckas himself — concluded there was a “failure of leadership” at D.A.’s office which “led to repeated problems with the handling of jailhouse informants and helped erode confidence in criminal cases that rely on their testimony.”

The California Attorney General and federal authorities are currently investigating his office over allegations that he planted jailhouse snitches in the county jail — and that Rackauckas’s office was aware that those snitches had been proven unreliable in the past.

A grand jury convened in Orange County also investigated the snitch issue. Although it “found no definitive evidence of a structured jailhouse informant program operating in the Orange County jails,” the Grand Jury did find “discovery violations in a small number of cases,” and, perhaps most critically, that “[b]oth the Orange County District Attorney and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department allowed employees to drift from the core organizational mission of their agencies and this lax supervision has unfortunately resulted in the erosion of trust in the criminal justice system.” (OC Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley, who has covered Rackauckas and his office closely, ridiculed the Grand Jury’s findings.)

Rackauckas’ office was also removed from the death penalty prosecution of Scott Dekraai after the presiding judge became angry at prosecutors’ failure to turn over evidence to Dekraai’s lawyers. Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said prosecutors failed to turn over important evidence multiple times and found Sheriff’s deputies “intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence from the court” — and that the district attorney’s office was responsible for the acts and omissions of those deputies.

Two investigators who worked for Rackauckas also claim that the district attorney interfered in multiple investigations and engaged in cover ups when police broke the law. A former chief investigator in the office has alleged that Rackauckas interfered in public corruption investigations that involved people who’d supported him.

Rackauckas couldn’t even launch his reelection bid without a scandal. Earlier this year, ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme and another person protesting against Rackauckas were hit by a car driven by a supporter of the district attorney outside a fundraiser for Rackauckas as he launched his reelection bid. No one was seriously hurt, although Hamme was taken to the hospital and then released.

Earlier this week, Rackauckas got his first opponent for the 2018 election. How much these and other scandals will these burden Rackauckas’s reelection efforts remains to be seen.

Bexar County D.A. ducks accountability by shutting out newspaper

Bexar Co. DA Nico LaHood
Office of the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney

Bexar County D.A. ducks accountability by shutting out newspaper

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood is refusing to talk to the San Antonio Express-News and is blocking them from attending press conferences that he holds. The Express-News is the fourth-largest daily newspaper in the state of Texas in terms of circulation and a leading news source for South Texas. Bexar County is the seventh-most populous county in the nation and the fourth-most populated in Texas.

According to the Express-News, LaHood didn’t inform the paper that two press conferences were occurring, and then refused to allow reporters and photographers from the paper in when they showed up. LaHood and his spokesperson are also not returning phone calls from the newspaper.

The animus appears to run deep. LaHood accused the newspaper of dishonesty in a Facebook post last year.

“If I am not expected to tolerate bad behavior from criminals, then I cannot tolerate bad behavior from unethical journalism,” LaHood said, specifically expressing anger at a column where a defense lawyer was quoted as calling LaHood a bully.

The Express-News has written several other critical stories about LaHood, including an allegation that he threatened to destroy the legal practice of two defense lawyers if they publicly made allegations that a prosecutor was having a sexual relationship with a key witness in a murder case. A state district judge backed the defense lawyers and said LaHood made the threat in her presence.

The powerful role of the district attorney is an increasingly frequent conversation. By boxing out reporters and photographers from his county’s biggest newspaper, LaHood is curtailing access, which runs the dangerous risk of making himself and his office less accessible and transparent. As the Express-News editorial page said “Whether you love or hate the media, blocking their access at any level by any public official infringes on the First Amendment and a free press. That, in turn, impinges on your right to information.”

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Las Vegas area cops seizing millions of dollars from low-income people of color

Las Vegas area cops seizing millions of dollars from low-income people of color

Between July 2015 and June 2016, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) made $1.9 million from civil asset forfeiture, the law enforcement practice of seizing cash and property from members of the public and forcing them to legally forfeit those belongings. Now, evidence shows that the funds came from low-income, predominately non-white neighborhoods.

According to a new report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), forfeiture took place in one-fourth of the zip codes under LVMPD’s purview. The targeted zip codes have both the highest rates of poverty and the highest percentages of non-white residents.

Nevada law only allows forfeiture of seized goods to occur when a person is convicted of a crime. Once they are found guilty, owners of the money or property have the opportunity to fight for their belongings in a civil court. They simply have to prove that the seized assets weren’t related to the crime. But the people targeted by Las Vegas police are generally unable to afford legal counsel to fight for their belongings, which are typically worth less than the price of an attorney, NPRI reports.

The organization concludes that civil asset forfeiture is “regressive in nature.”

“It targets the poorest, most racially-diverse areas in Clark County, and often the individuals caught within the web of forfeiture lack the knowledge and resources to effectively combat it, even in those instances where little evidence exists against them,” the report states. “The evidence therefore supports the position that the practice of civil asset forfeiture should be abolished completely.”

Just as law enforcement officials have railed against reform efforts and touted the virtues of the practice nationwide, local police and prosecutors argue that civil asset forfeiture has merit. They say it is a way to crack down on a robust drug trade in the state.

“(A driver is) going to say, ‘Well, that’s my money,’ and we’ll say, ‘That’s fine, give us your bank accounts, IRA, tax statements,’” Thomas Moreo, the chief deputy district attorney of Clark County, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. “All of a sudden he has to start naming people. ‘I’m working for Joe Blow’s company.’ That gives us a name.”

But the fact that people are shaken down for money and other assets worth less than $1,000 indicates that they aren’t big-time drug traders with wads of cash.

For years, Moreo has also insisted that there is a fair court process by which assets are seized and forfeited. “This is a difficult concept to grasp if you believe that we take property or money from people. That is not what happens,” he told a state senate committee in 2015. During the committee meeting, he explained that the seized assets are held in court — not in the hands of cops or prosecutors — until a criminal case is finalized. If a defendant is found innocent, he or she gets those assets back. If the defendant is guilty, there is a legal mechanism to fight for the belongings. But the NPRI report shows that this type of legal action is easier said than done.

While the new report focuses on the LVMPD, the Nevada Attorney General Office from which NPRI pulled some of its data shows that civil asset forfeiture is lucrative for law enforcement officers in other parts of Clark County as well. Two police departments outside of Las Vegas made around $650,000 during the same time period analyzed in NPRI’s report.

Due to law enforcement pressure to maintain the status quo, changes to the state’s forfeiture law aren’t likely to be made soon. Early this year, a Democratic senator in the state legislature — who also serves as a deputy district attorney in Clark County — recently helped kill a reform bill dead in its tracks.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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