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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

LA County Warrants Dispute Turns Toxic

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A battle over errors in the L.A. County warrant system turned ugly Thursday after an attorney for the county said opposing counsel had accused him of a "criminal conspiracy."

"This litigation has gone far afield of the merits of the case," a visibly angry Scott Caron said at a hearing in federal court. "I've been accused of engaging in a criminal conspiracy."

Caron was incensed, he said, by statements the plaintiff's lawyer Donald Cook had made in an amended civil complaint, accusing an unnamed attorney and firm of accessing his client's criminal records to gain an advantage in the case.

An attorney with Glendale firm Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi, Caron said Cook had also questioned his intelligence during a deposition hearing.

"I owe him an apology," Cook said, pausing for a moment. "I owe him an apology ... If what he says is true."

"Did you call him stupid?" U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson asked.

"No, I did not," Cook said.

Pregerson spent the better part of the hearing trying to get to the bottom of the dispute, after Caron complained that Cook was impossible to deal with.

"It's never a good thing to make it personal," Pregerson told the attorneys. "It's always a bad idea."

Pregerson then took the unusual step of summoning the attorneys to his chambers to conclude proceedings.

About 15 minutes later, Caron walked out of the chambers, grabbed his case and marched out of the courtroom.

Through all the histrionics, it was easy to forget why the lawyers were in court in the first place.

Pregerson had scheduled the hearing to consider the county's motion to strike three civil rights claims in a class action complaint to fix flaws in the county' warrant system.

In 2012, Cook's client Reggie Smith sued the county after his wrongful arrest on a warrant for another man, seeking an order to include unique identifiers on warrants.

The identifiers are readily available to federal and state law enforcement agencies to prevent arrests or incarcerations because of cases of mistaken identity. The county, however, does not include that information on arrest warrants, Smith says.

Though three counts of Smith's complaint were up for discussion, Pregerson was preoccupied with a fifth cause of action for violation of due process.

Explaining the claim, Cook said he believed that someone could be looking at Smith's criminal history to see if his record was clean. His record might be used to gain a "litigation advantage," the attorney said.

The amended complaint lists 10 instances between Dec. 15, 2011 and March 7, 2013 when Smith's California Department of Justice criminal history was accessed "without lawful justification."

"That strikes me as odd and suspicious because it doesn't match up with the case," Cook told Pregerson.

Caron said that Cook had provided no proof to support the claim. The county had retrieved Smith's criminal history for a "proper purpose," the attorney added.

"You cannot base a cause of action on conjecture and speculation," Caron said.

Cook said after the hearing that Pregerson had told the attorneys in his chambers that he would grant the motion to dismiss the count for due process. He left the door open for Smith to support his claim with evidence, Cook said.

In response to Caron's complaints, Cook said: "What's he got to be angry about? He gets paid by the hour. I don't."

Cook said that Caron was upset by the language he had used in Smith's amended complaint, stating that Smith's "confidential criminal history" had been retrieved in a "conspiracy involving county employees and Unnamed Lawyer and Unnamed Law Firm."

Cook said in a hallway outside the courtroom: "My gut tells me, given the civil litigation it would be a law firm or a lawyer. But for all I know, it could be lawyers who work in the county counsel's office. And so I really don't know."

He added: "I'm not saying it was him. I'm not saying it's his law firm, although that's a possibility. But I haven't got the evidence for it and that's why I'm not alleging it."

Caron did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

The court posted civil minutes on Thursday noting that the county's motion to strike portions of the complaint had been taken under submission.

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