News

The PJLC Represents Chicanxs Unidxs and the ACLU in lawsuit demanding racial justice data from the OCDA

October 19, 2022

Chicanxs Unidxs and the ACLU Foundations of Southern California and Northern California, represented by the Peace and Justice Law Center, filed suit against OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer for violating the state's Public Records Act by refusing to release

documents concerning the county's implementation of the Racial Justice Act.


The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2020, prohibits the state from pursuing convictions or sentences based upon race, ethnicity, or national origin and allows people to challenge proceedings that may have been tainted by racial bias. An ACLU report based on 2017/18 data showed persistent racial disparities in prosecutions by the OCDA. Last June, District Attorney Todd Spitzer gained notoriety as the only district attorney found to have violated the Racial Justice Act through his personal actions. This lawsuit seeks to prove that, in response to the public's increasing demands for information regarding racism in Orange County's criminal justice system, the OCDA now has a policy and practice of unlawfully refusing any public request for data that would demonstrate the OCDA's compliance or non-compliance with the Racial Justice Act.


ACLU sues DA Spitzer for 'stonewalling' on release of racial bias records. OC Register

ACLU sues OC District Attorney Over Racial Justice Act Documents. KFI.


Read the full complaint here.


The PJLC Petitions the California Supreme Court to Hear Orange County Gang Injunction Case

July 26, 2022

The California Court of Appeals in Santa Ana has denied an appeal by one of the PJLC’s clients where we argued that the OCDA’s gang injunction procedure is unconstitutional. Currently, the OCDA wins its injunctions by suing gangs and not individual people, as if a gang was an organization with a clearly defined purpose, membership, and decision-making process. The OCDA does this, despite the impossibility of a gang ever appearing in court to defend itself and despite laws which state only organizations formed for a lawful purpose may be sued this way. Then, once the OCDA “wins” their lawsuit without opposition, the OCDA adds named people to the injunction through a process entirely of the OCDA’s own invention.


Now that the Court of Appeals has made their decision, the PJLC will ask the California Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the Court of Appeals. While the California Supreme Court only hears 3% of the cases for which it receives petitions, we hope the Court will take this case since the liberties of thousands of people across California turn on this decision.


Update: The California Supreme Court decided not to hear the case but also denied the DA's request to publish the case. The decision not to publish the case means that the lower court's decision is not binding on any other case. PJLC continues to represent our client in the case and continues to fight not just for his civil rights, but for an end to the entire injunction.

The PJLC Joins Panel on Law and Racism Hosted by the Bar Association of San Francisco

July 13, 2022

Today, the San Francisco Bar Foundation hosted a panel of experts on law and racism from across the state to discuss “Narratives of Diverse Communities in the Law.” Among the three panelists was the PJLC’s Sean Garcia-Leys. The conversation focused on the biases of judges against people of color, the fear of moderate legislators to enact the policies needed to purge bias from our judicial system, and the insufficient public support for elected officials who do take action. Panelists discussed their first-hand experiences with this bias when representing people of color in dependency court, criminal appeals, gang injunction cases, and in policy work. Attorney attendees received professional development credit from the State Bar Association for attendance.

The PJLC and Allies Meet with California Department of Justice Officials to Discuss Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s Racism.

April 11, 2022

Following a damning report on racism in the office of the Orange County District Attorney published by the ACLU of Southern California, and a series of news articles on racist statements by OCDA Todd Spitzer, a group of advocates and organizations from across Orange County met last week with officials from the California Department of Justice to give their firsthand accounts of the DA’s racist practices. The PJLC described how the OCDA is working to prevent the implementation of the California Racial Justice Act and continues to prosecute gang injunctions only against people of color while giving Orange County’s many racist white gangs a free pass.

Advocates called on the DOJ to investigate Todd Spitzer and his office for his refusal to break from his office’s history of racism.

PJLC Represents the ACLU in Lawsuit Demanding Documents from the Inglewood Police Department

January 18, 2022

The ACLU has retained the PJLC to represent the organization in seeking a temporary restraining order against the City of Inglewood, demanding that they stop destroying records of police misconduct. Today, PJLC lawyers appeared in court and won the restraining order. While the ACLU is a public interest law firm and typically litigates cases themselves, in this instance, they needed outside counsel. We are honored that the ACLU would choose the PJLC to represent them in court.

The City of Inglewood is apparently attempting to repeat their 2018 decision to shred documents on the eve of new transparency laws taking effect. A few weeks before SB 16 took effect on January 1 of this year, the Inglewood City Council voted to destroy a cache of internal affairs investigations into Inglewood Police Department officers. The ACLU of Southern California, who had requested internal affairs documents in 2019 but still not received them, seeks to stop the destruction of the documents.

Among the documents the ACLU seeks is the file for the investigation into the highly publicized killing of Kisha Michael by Inglewood Police Department officers.

PJLC Expands to Include Police Misconduct Project

January 4, 2022

With the addition of Ameena Qazi as the PJLC’s second staff attorney, the PJLC is expanding to add a focus on police accountability in Orange County.

Orange County has an unmet need for community lawyering focused on routine police misconduct such as unreasonably long street-corner detentions, excessive force during an arrest that does not result in serious injury, and property damage from unnecessarily aggressive home searches. Orange County’s civil rights bar lacks the capacity and tools to focus on routine police misconduct and the county’s criminal justice advocacy groups generally lack staff attorneys to leverage the courts to address this kind of police misconduct. The result is an unmet need for a police accountability program housed in a public interest law firm like the PJLC that will offer pro bono legal services to address the kinds of police misconduct that doesn’t typically result in lawsuits.

The PJLC is planning a Police Misconduct Project that will 1) partner with community-based organizations to host police accountability legal clinics and setup an in-house infrastructure for intakes, 2) support community-based Cop Watch programs and policy reform campaigns, 3) use lawsuits under the CA Public Records Act to make police practices public, and 4) file § 1983 and other claims to leverage the power of the courts to address police misconduct.

Through partnerships with community groups and by leveraging the courts, the PJLC hopes this program will reduce state violence, increase public safety, and make policing in Orange County more equitable.

Ameena Qazi Joins the PJLC as Co-Executive Director

October 26, 2021

Yesterday, the PJLC voted to hired attorney Ameena Qazi as Co-Executive Director of the PJLC. She will be an equal partner to the PJLC’s founding attorney, Sean Garcia-Leys. Ameena’s work will focus on police misconduct, First Amendment and policing, and open government issues.

Ameena has extensive experience as an attorney and community advocate in Southern California. As Executive Director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Ameena worked on protecting our rights to political protest and dissident speech, as well as movement building after the Presidential Election in November 2016.

Formerly the Deputy Executive Director and Staff Attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations—Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter (CAIR-LA), the largest American Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, cases she worked on include co-counseling a wrongful death action and §1983 claim against LAPD that resulted in a $1.7million verdict (Chaudhry v. LAPD), and co-counseling a class action lawsuit with the ACLU of Southern California and Hadsell, Stormer and Renick, LLP against the FBI for unlawful surveillance of the Southern California Muslim community.

A member of the California State Bar, Ameena graduated with Cum Laude honors from Wayne State University School of Law, and graduated Magna Cum Laude from UCLA with a BA in Political Science. She has also proudly served on the boards of the ACLU of Southern California, the Public Law Center, and the National Lawyers Guild Orange County.

The PJLC is very excited to have Ameena as part of the team.

PJLC Selected to Lead the Decriminalizing Neighborhoods National Network

October 8, 2021

At the Decriminalizing Neighborhoods conference this past July, Professor Alex Vitale of CUNY led a plenary strategy session discussing his proposal to create a network that would bring together advocates, organizers, and scholars across the nation focused on reducing state violence, community violence, and decreasing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Following the conference, sponsors met to plan the implementation of Professor Vitale’s proposed national network. At the meeting, the sponsors decided to convene a steering committee of advocates from around the country to draft a mission, a set of guiding principles, and create a structure for the network. That steering committee has now had its first meeting and has unanimously decided to select the PJLC to lead the formation of the network.

PJLC Contributes to Revision of State’s Gang Laws – Will Lead to Thousands of Fairer, Less Racially Discriminatory Sentences

October 8, 2021

Today, Governor Newsom signed into law State Senator Sydney Kamlager’s AB 333, which the PJLC helped draft. This revision of the Penal Code closes loopholes in state laws that allow overbroad and discriminatory gang enhancements to be added to criminal sentences. While AB 333 did not eliminate gang enhancements entirely, as the PJLC continues to recommend, AB 333 will decrease the number of gang prosecutions, perhaps dramatically. The result will be fewer people receiving indefensibly long sentences, trials will be fairer, and California will be a step closer to eliminating law enforcement’s counterproductive use of anti-gang policing as a proxy for racial profiling.

Work towards rewriting California’s gang enhancement law began in 2020, when PJLC’s Sean Garcia-Leys was invited to testify to Governor Newsom’s Committee on Revision of the Penal Code. There, Mr. Garcia-Leys and Lisa Romo of the State Public Defender’s Office explained to the Committee how prosecutors have near limitless discretion to define a gang and gang crime. Prosecutors are able to describe nearly any neighborhood as a “gang neighborhood,” nearly anyone from those neighborhoods as “gang participants,” and nearly any crime as “furthering the interests of the gang.” Unsurprisingly, this power was frequently abused but nearly exclusively to defendants of color.

Based on Mr. Garcia-Leys’ and Ms. Romo’s testimony, the Committee produced a report that included their recommendations, and these recommendations were then introduced to the Legislature by State Senator Kamlager as AB 333. The initial draft included several of the paragraphs of statutory language that Mr. Garcia-Leys drafted immediately after testifying to the Committee.

When the PJLC formed in 2021, we were invited to provide technical assistance to Senator Kamlager’s office as part of the team of attorneys who revised the bill’s statutory language as it proceeded through committees. It passed through the legislature and was signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom today. The law takes effect January 1, 2022.

Now that the bill has passed, the PJLC will continue to work to make sure the new law is implemented and will collect data to measure its effect.

PJLC Works to Implement California’s Groundbreaking Racial Justice Act

September 7, 2021

In 2020, the Legislature enacted the California Racial Justice Act, taking the boldest step of any state towards ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The CRJA says that no state court may punish a person more harshly because of the person’s ethnicity.

While the US Constitution’s Equal Protection Claus should have guaranteed that already, in practice, that right was gutted by a US Supreme Court decision that held that courts would not disturb criminal sentences unless there was proof of “racial animus” on the part of police or prosecutors. The result has been that no matter how glaring the statistics showing systemic racism, the courts would not act to remedy racial injustice unless a defendant could prove racism in the hearts and minds of police or prosecutors, a nearly impossible task.

While that is still the law in federal courts, the Racial Justice Act changes that law in state courts.

Now, a defendant can prove through statistics when similarly situated people of other races are punished less harshly and, on that basis, have their sentences reduced.

Unsurprisingly, this challenge to systemic racism has not been embraced by the Orange County District Attorney. Instead of following the new law, the OCDA has worked to hide the data needed to argue a Racial Justice Act violation.

Today, the PJLC has begun its work implementing the Racial Justice Act by filing an amicus letters in the California State Supreme Court, asking the high court to review the OCDA’s refusal to share data.

PJLC Co-Sponsors National Virtual Conference on Decriminalizing Neighborhoods

July 26, 2021

The PJLC co-sponsored this year’s Decriminalizing Neighborhoods Conference, a three-day national virtual conference. Over 200 people attended the conference, representing over 30 organizations from nearly 20 cities. Alongside San Diego’s Pillars of the Community, the PJLC was responsible for creating the program and inviting speakers, including keynote speakers Chesa Boudin, “King Tone” Fernandez, and California State Senator Sydney Kamlager. The PJLC’s Sean Garcia-Leys also led a session on model legislation for reforming anti-gang criminal statutes. Fellow Orange County advocates from Chicanxs Unidxs spoke on the ongoing campaign to end gang injunctions in Orange County.

A full list of presenters and videos of their presentations can be found at decriminalizingneighborhoods.org

The PJLC Takes the Lead on Fighting OC Gang Injunctions in Court

May 24, 2021

Though most counties have abandoned their gang injunction programs, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is one of the few remaining DAs in California who continues to pursue these costly, ineffective, unconstitutional forms of harassment. At the end of 2020, the OCDA served legal papers on nine young men, seeking to make them subject to a gang injunction issued by the court in 2014. With the help of the grassroots organization Chicanxs Unidxs, the PJLC met with several of the young men and agreed to represent one of them in court. Another young man is being represented by a pro bono attorney from the National Lawyers Guild.

The PJLC has appeared in court for this young man several times, filing hundreds of pages of legal briefs. In addition to arguing the due process violations rampant in gang injunction cases like this one, the PJLC also moved the court to dissolve the entire injunction on the basis that the OCDA is unlawfully using the civil court system to bypass the protections afforded people in the criminal system.

The motion to dissolve the injunction was just denied by the trial court and the PJLC is representing our client in appealing that decision. A favorable decision in the Court of Appeals could end gang injunctions in Orange County and possibly all of California.


PJLC and UCI Law’s Criminal Justice Clinic Team Up to Provide Free Legal Services to People Leaving Gangs or Wrongly Accused of Gang Membership

January 8, 2021

To help start the PJLC, the Criminal Justice Clinic at UC Irvine School of Law has bestowed on the PJLC’s Executive Director, Sean Garcia-Leys, a one-year position as a visiting scholar. This position gives the PJLC access to such legal necessities as legal research materials, professional liability protection, and a community of peers. In return, Mr. Garcia-Leys will work with Professor Katie Tinto to oversee law students providing direct services to people leaving gangs or wrongly accused of gang membership.

Additionally, the PJLC and the Criminal Justice Clinic will also support the grassroots organization Chicanxs Unidxs as they assist families targeted by the Santa Ana Police Department. Police repeatedly serve search warrants on the homes of families that include alleged gang members where police trash the homes and break valuables.

Lastly, the PJLC is also providing direct legal services to undocumented immigrants by providing expert testimony to the immigration court. Our first client is a father seeking the renewal of his U-Visa.