Monday, October 2, 2023

ACLU Sues Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster for Refusal to Divulge Public Records

The display of Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster’s reception area [Picture by Matt LaFever]

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster found himself in the legal crosshairs of one of America’s leading voices for individual rights and civil liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Court documents filed in May 2022 indicate the ACLU filed a civil lawsuit against DA Eyster for his office’s alleged refusal to respond to their public records requests submitted to assess the office’s implementation of legislation put into place designed to eliminate racial bias in California’s criminal convictions. The suit demanded the release of the requested documents and the payment of all legal expenses encumbered by the ACLU in their efforts to obtain the documents.

After nearly one year of legal wrangling between ACLU’s attorneys and Mendocino County’s legal counsel, the records were turned over to the ACLU in April 2023 while the issue of legal expenses remains outstanding.

According to the civil suit filed by the ACLU, Mendocino County District Attorney Eyster failed to respond or comply with their attempts to obtain information from him directly, as required by the California Public Records Act and the state constitution. The civil case sought to compel DA Eyster to “immediately disclose and produce” the requested public records.

Court documents indicate the ACLU submitted its first request for records on July 23, 2021, and was met with silence. They submitted another records request in September 2021 which was also left unanswered. 

The civil suit claims DA Eyster “ignored the ACLU’s requests despite repeated follow-up efforts… via phone, email, fax, and certified mail seeking the District Attorney’s compliance with the PRA.”

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The ACLU waited for just under a year and never heard a word from DA Eyster. They filed their civil suit in May 2022 at the Mendocino County Superior Court. Judge Janine Nadal has presided over the legal scuffle while Mendocino County Deputy Counsel Brina Blanton has represented the County and the District Attorney.

The court issued a summons for the County of Mendocino and DA Eyster requiring the parties to respond in writing within thirty days of receiving it. Mendocino County Deputy CEO Cherie Johnson accepted the court’s communication on behalf of the county. When the courier delivered DA Eyster his summons, she was met by a member of the office staff referred to as “Erica ‘Doe’” because she “refused to give [her] last name.” 

After eleven months of litigation and an unknown number of billable attorney hours, the documents sought by the ACLU were finally provided by Eyster’s office. The outstanding attorney fees and legal costs will be discussed in a hearing scheduled for June 30, 2023.

Deputy County Counsel Blanton could not comment on the lawsuit. In an email, she told us “County Counsel’s Office does not comment on pending litigation” and that the “lawsuit referenced in your email is pending litigation.”

We asked Deputy Counsel Blanton how much money had been spent litigating the case thus far. She would not provide invoices, amount of billable time, or legal hours. She cited an exemption from the California Public Records Act that “attorney invoices related to pending or ongoing litigation are privileged and not subject to PRA disclosure” while the action is still pending.

District Attorney Eyster, the elected official being sued for his refusal to respond to public records requests, did not respond to our request for comment.

We reached out to the ACLU to learn more about their fight for government transparency. We hoped to understand the genesis of their project and how Mendocino County’s lack of transparency compares to other counties in the rural north. Ironically, like the official they are suing, they did not respond.

A protestor on Ukiah’s State Street in April 2020 at a Black Lives Matter Rally [Photograph by Matt LaFever]

At the center of the ACLU’s efforts to obtain records from DA Eyster is California’s Racial Justice Act, a bill they actually sponsored in 2020. California Assemblyman Ash Kalra brought the bill to Sacramento to prohibit California prosecutors from using race, ethnicity, or national origin when pursuing criminal convictions and handing down sentences.

Supporters of the Racial Justice Act argued the legislation would right the wrongs of McCleskey v Kemp, a Supreme Court decision from 1987. The decision required defense attorneys “prove intentional discrimination” to claim racial bias colored their client’s prosecution. In practice, this meant defendants asserting racial bias had to show the court explicit admissions or evidence of racial discrimination.

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Arguments presented on the California Assembly floor found in a legislative analysis document offer the ACLU’s assessment of McCleskey v Kemp: “This is an unreasonably high standard and is almost impossible to meet without direct proof that the racially discriminatory behavior was conscious, deliberate, and targeted.”

The California District Attorney’s Association spoke in opposition to the legislation arguing that abandonment of the standard set by McCleskey v Kemp could result in criminal cases being overturned lacking concrete evidence. They predicted criminal cases could be derailed by claims of racism “without any showing that the defendant suffered any prejudice as a result of the bias, that the bias has any impact whatsoever on the outcome of the trial, or that the defendant was deprived of a fair trial!” 

The ACLU has made all documents they have received from their public records campaigns available to the public at large. Mendocino County’s file contains multiple spreadsheets of data regarding convictions, criminal dispositions, filing statistics, and more. The spreadsheets offer raw, extensive data with limited value for the average Joe hoping to learn about Mendocino County District Attorney’s policies and practices. 

Without processing and curation, the data released by Mendocino County offers very little to understand the DA’s implementation of the Racial Justice Act.

Lady Justice at the Mendocino County Superior Court House in Ukiah]

The ACLU’s record request is part of their campaign to assess how California prosecutors are putting the Racial Justice Act into practice. These requests filed by the ACLU are broad in scope and designed to elicit information that sheds light on each District Attorney’s policies, guidance, and training relevant to the RJA.

The records requests are two-pronged asking for both policies and data that capture each office’s execution of the RJA.  

Some of the notable policies requested include the DA’s custody/bail recommendation, their jury selection procedures, any policies about the prosecution of minors, any training conducted on implicit bias or racism, and internal communication regarding the Racial Justice Act. 

Data points sought by the ACLU include a comprehensive list of defendants dating back to 2015, each defendant’s race, reasons cited to decline prosecution, case outcomes, and sentencing recommendations. 

In the last year, DA Eyster’s opaque implementation of Brady v Maryland has come under scrutiny. Coincidentally, the ACLU’s record requests include the policies and procedures that guide DA Eyster’s use of Brady v Maryland. When ACLU releases the totality of the documents their lawsuit elicited, the Mendocino County public could very well be presented with the most intimate look yet into the inner-working of its District Attorney.

Brady v Maryland, a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1963, requires prosecutors to provide any exculpatory evidence that points towards a defendant’s innocence. The Supreme Court determined “the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to the accused” violates due process. This practice includes requiring prosecutors to disclose whether a law enforcement officer has ever lied in an official capacity thus undermining a prosecution’s integrity. 

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To track these officers, prosecutors maintain a running tab of dishonest officers, known as the “Brady List.” Cops who wind up on the Brady List are unable to testify in a criminal court due to their documented history of dishonesty and often find themselves forced into clerical or administrative capacities. 

DA Eyster’s policies and procedures surrounding the Brady List have come under fire in recent years with some claiming he has weaponized the Brady List to damage members of local law enforcement that rubbed him wrong.

Amanda Carley, a former Mendocino County probation officer, filed a civil suit in 2017 that claimed DA Eyster placed her on the Brady List after she was allegedly physically abused by Ukiah Police Officer Noble Waidelich. 

DA Eyster justified her placement on the Brady List after learning Carley denied being a victim of physical abuse while meeting with an investigator. DA Eyster used this as evidence of Carley lying in an official capacity, placing her on the Brady List, and locally marking her as a dishonest law enforcement officer.

She told reporter Mike Geniella “There is no doubt I was a victim of Eyster’s weaponization of Brady.” 

Christopher Awad, a former officer for the Fort Bragg Police Department, also found himself on DA Eyster’s Brady List after a deputy district attorney told her boss the Fort Bragg cop was obstructing the prosecution’s attempt to convict a DUI defendant in 2019. 

DA investigators interviewed Awad who admitted to engaging in a flirtatious relationship with the defendant, conducting consensual sexual activity with her on one occasion, and not demonstrating professionalism in the courtroom. 

DA investigators would frame Awad’s behavior as sabotaging the prosecution of the DUI defendant due to his personal relationship with the defendant. Awad would land on DA Eyster’s Brady List for these behaviors.

DA Eyster’s inconsistent application of the Brady List is revealed when the cases of Carley and Awad are compared to disgraced Ukiah Police Department Sergeant Kevin Murray 

Murray allegedly forced a woman to give him oral sex while he held a firearm. Murray is said to have gotten off a shift with UPD, forced his way into the hotel room of a woman he had just cited for a traffic infraction, and demanded oral sex. A former female police officer claims Murray forced himself into her hotel room and physically assaulted her. His command staff found methamphetamine in his police station locker.

In 2018, the former sergeant tackled a handicapped war veteran which resulted in a million-dollar payout. While litigating the use of force, a deputy district attorney admitted to knowing Murray lied about the circumstances of the incident. 

The public is left wondering how could the actions of Carley and Awad rise to the level of the Brady List while Murray remained a credible law enforcement officer in the eyes of the District Attorney.

Deputy DA Luke Oakley testified in 2021 that he was not aware of a formalized Brady system at the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office. He stated that DA Eyster simply informs him if an officer falls under the Brady list. 

DA Eyster’s implementation of Brady v Maryland is a mere bullet point in the list of information his office has been asked to produce. But, now that the records are in the hands of the ACLU, the public could very well get its first opportunity to understand how DA Eyster uses the Brady List.

Legal reference books at the Mendocino County Superior Court in Ukiah [Picture by Matt LaFever]

The issue of public access to government records has been discussed at length within Mendocino County for the last year. The Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance Number 4507  which directed the county to charge between $20 to $150 per hour of staff time to locate, review, and redact any records requested by the public. 

The board reasoned the fees would mitigate broad, time-consuming records requests bogging down county employees and businesses using record requests for financial gain.

The ordinance was met with condemnation from the ACLU, First Amendment Coalition, local media, and many members of the public. In an about-face, the five supervisors unanimously rescinded the ordinance this last week on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, hoping to dispel the perceptions the county was actively keeping the public from the documents funded by their tax dollars.

Chessie Thacher, a Senior Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said “It’s good to see that Mendocino finally did the right thing after starting off in the wrong direction.”

The day after rescinding the public records fees, the Board of Supervisors met in council chambers out of the eyes of the public for a closed session. In private, the County of Mendocino’s legal team informed the five supervisors of the ongoing lawsuit between the ACLU and DA Eyster brought forth by an elected official’s rejection of transparency.

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      • That was my point silly. It is called sarcasm. Our District Attorney belongs behind bars. I don’t think anyone but you is oblivious enough to not realize that I was being sarcastic.

    • What difference does it make which records? Unless related to medical records, minors, ongoing cases or victims of sex crimes, all records should be available to the citizens! FFree9f charge. These are our records. Not his personal diary.

      • “The suit demanded the release of the requested documents…”
        Again, what requested documents? Ongoing cases, medical records, personal information about alleged victims? What documents are requested? Requests should be made aware to any citizen concerning a specific request. Free of charge.

  1. And while we are on the topic of DA Dave, why is the public being kept in the dark about ex Ukiah Chief of Police Noble Waidelich? Two victims have had to take him to civil court because DA Dave is just sitting on his case. Where is the justice for these victims? Does it make anyone else question the ability of this DA to actually do his job? Does he have the best interest of Mendocino County’s residents in his mind? The statement, “Question Authority” comes to mind…

  2. Just put this with the hundreds of other examples of the corruption In the county government here……and law enforcement and city councils and so on and so on……narcisstic to go against the ACLU and think you’ll come out out of it a Winner. Oh yea I forgot the corrupt lawyers that represent the county officials….

  3. The Oyster goes down slimy. He goes after animal cruelty with a vengence and ignores senior assaults and rape.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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