Report Calls LA County Public Defenders Ill-Equipped for Noncitizen Clients  

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office lacks expert support in handling cases involving noncitizens, increasing their danger of deportation and other immigration-related consequences, a report released Wednesday says.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California report, “Defend L.A.: Transforming Public Defense in the Era of Mass Deportation,” said only two of 700 attorneys in the county’s public defender’s office are experts in immigration law. Yet the office handles about 26,000 cases involving noncitizen clients per year.

“Providing an adequate number of immigration law experts is not only humane, it’s the law,” Andrés Kwon, an ACLU attorney and author of the 80-page report, said in a statement.

In a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Padilla v. Kentucky, the Court held that noncitizens’ Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel includes receiving accurate advice about the immigration consequences of criminal dispositions.

“Such informed legal defense could not be more paramount today, as the Trump administration expands the federal government’s reliance on local criminal justice systems to advance its deportation agenda,” Kwon said.

Both the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution guarantee the accused the right to effective assistance of counsel.

Federal and state constitutional law, along with recent California statutes, mandate that counsel for noncitizen clients provide accurate advice about the immigration-related consequences of a contemplated disposition, as well as the pursuit of all available dispositions that avoid or mitigate those consequences.

LACPD has been “grossly under-resourced” as measured against recommended staffing ratios for offices in California and compared to other public defender offices.

“As a result, LACPD underserves a large and vital segment of the Los Angeles population: the immigrant community,” the report said.

Even minor misdemeanor offenses — such as shoplifting, turnstile jumping, or public urination — can trigger deportation without the support of an immigration law expert.

California is home to 10 million immigrant residents, according to the Pew Research Center.

Of the 3.5 million immigrants in Los Angeles County, Pew estimates that 1.5 million are undocumented.

With the rise of mass incarceration and a surge in immigration in the early 2000s, criminal charges and convictions “raised the stakes of criminal proceedings,” the report said. Noncitizens increasingly face deportation and permanent separation from their families, communities and homes.

“In this context, quality legal representation at the front end during criminal proceedings—can usually make all the difference,” the report said.

The report documented cases in which LACPD’s noncitizen clients pleaded to criminal dispositions that triggered severe consequences when more favorable alternatives existed.

Christian P., a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in 2013 to driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent and received a sentence of 365 days in jail. The sentence made the conviction an aggravated felony, subjecting Christian to mandatory deportation.

“Luckily, an immigration law expert stepped in and got the sentence reduced to 364 days, putting Christian out of danger of deportation,” the report said.

Norberto S., also a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in 2015 to possession for sale of methamphetamine, which put him in line for mandatory deportation. An immigration law expert intervened and convinced Noberto to plead guilty to a more serious offense.

“That move, called pleading upward, might seem counterintuitive, but the more serious offense didn’t carry mandatory deportation,” the report said.

According to the report, other California counties do a better job of staffing immigration law experts in their public defender offices. For example, five of the 108 public defenders in Alameda County specialize in immigration law.

“That’s a ratio of one immigration law expert for 22 public defenders,” the report said.

Contra Costa County’s ratio is 1 to 75, and San Bernardino County’s is 1 to 96. But LA County employs only one immigration law expert for every 350 public defenders.

The ACLU recommends that 15 additional immigration experts be added to LACPD’s staff. The estimated cost for this would be “no more than $3 million,” or about one-hundredth of 1 percent of the county budget.

“It’s a relatively small price to pay for the county to provide constitutionally mandated representation for noncitizens in criminal court,” Kwon said.

Established in 1914, the LACPD was the first public defender office in the United States and remains the largest to this day with 39 locations across LA County. The office handles about 300,000 cases a year.

A call made to LACPD requesting comment was not returned by press time.

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