Release Date:  May 12, 2008
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS D.A.’S DEFENSE OF VICTIM’S RIGHTS
Decision in People v. Superior Court (Humberto S.) announced today

The California Supreme Court today rejected an appellate court ruling which had disqualified part of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office from participating in a child molestation case. The lower court had determined that it was a conflict of interest for the prosecutor to protect the confidential medical and psychotherapy records of the young victim.  The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision disagreed, stating “the trial court’s conclusion that various prosecutors had a conflict because of their representation of [the victim] was wrong as a matter of law.”

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined the case to encourage a decision to overturn the appellate court’s erroneous ruling.   

“Today’s decision makes it clear that it is well within the District Attorney’s authority to defend the rights of crime victims when those rights align with the state’s interest in prosecuting the crime, as they usually do,” said CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “The lower court decision in this case would have left victims of crime to fend for themselves against taxpayer-paid attorneys for the defendant,” he added.

The case involves charges brought against a juvenile, Humberto S., for the continuous sexual abuse of his eight-year-old niece Samantha.  Prior to trial, Humberto’s defense attorney asked the court to provide him with the confidential records of Samantha’s medical and psychological history.  The Los Angeles District Attorney, which was prosecuting the case, moved to block the defendant’s access to the records.  At a hearing to resolve the dispute, the judge asked Samantha’s parents for consent to turn over the records.  The father, who is the defendant’s brother, agreed to give the defense access to his daughter’s records.  The mother was opposed to this.  Due to the apparent conflict of interest regarding the father and disagreement with the little girl’s mother, the prosecutor asked the court to appoint an attorney to protect Samantha’s interests. 

The court denied the prosecutor’s request and ruled that the consent of the victim’s father was sufficient to release her confidential records to the defense.  The state Court of Appeal refused to consider the prosecutor’s appeal of that ruling. 

The defense then moved to disqualify the prosecutor, arguing that because he was trying to protect the rights of the victim, he was guilty of a conflict of interest.  The judge agreed, ruling to disqualify him and, because he had talked about the case with his colleagues, all of the approximately 100 other deputies serving in the Compton branch of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office were also disqualified.

Later, the Court of Appeal rejected the District Attorney’s appeal, announcing that the disqualification was necessary because the prosecutor was attempting “to represent the victim’s interest in protecting her privacy that exceeded the exercise of balanced discretion necessary to ensure a just and fair trial.”

When the California Supreme Court agreed to review that ruling, CJLF joined the case.  In its  amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argued that the lower courts’ rulings were improper and violated California law regarding the protection of confidential records.  In addition, the brief encouraged a precedent-setting decision announcing that the District Attorney is well within his authority to protect the interests of the victim in a case he is prosecuting. 

The Foundation’s brief in this case is available at:
www.cjlf.org/briefs/HumbertoS.pdf