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L.A. County Argues Right To Keep Billing Records From Public

Sophia Li |
January 15, 2015 | 12:10 p.m. PST

Web Producer

Attorney Timothy Coates gives his oral argument representing L.A. County. (Sophia Li / Neon Tommy)
Attorney Timothy Coates gives his oral argument representing L.A. County. (Sophia Li / Neon Tommy)
Do billing records count as attorney-client privilege? That was the big question Wednesday morning as attorneys for Los Angeles County and the ACLU gave oral arguments for and against the notion.  

In June 2014, the County was ordered to turn over information about its payments to private lawyers in nine separate excessive force cases involving the Sheriff’s Dept. Instead of releasing the payment records, it chose to appeal the case. Attorney Timothy Coates represented the County and argued that it has the right to withhold billing records from the public. 

Considering how many millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on legal fees for excessive force cases, citizen watchdog Eric Preven, who sued the County with the ACLU, believes the public has a right to know how that money was spent.  

READ MORE: The Hot Seat: Eric Preven

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. spent $43 million on litigation in the 2012-13 fiscal year, almost half of the County’s total legal costs. Excessive force cases brought against the Sheriff’s Dept. cost the County $20 million. 

According to Gloria Molina's L.A. City Council campaign website, there are 225 active excessive force cases and litigation costs have only continued to rise. 

“For years, we have been working hard to get a handle on the county’s legal costs,” Molina said on her site earlier this week. “Clearly, the Sheriff’s Department still has challenges.”

Preven called the legal battles in these excessive force cases “suspicious.” He believes the billing records should be available under the California Public Records Act and said that there needs to be more transparency.   

“Nobody wants to jeopardize a good defense for a police officer,” Preven said. “We’re talking about ensuring that the way we deploy the county’s resources is constitutional.” 

READ MORE: L.A. County Sheriff's Department: What You Need To Know

Preven is known by L.A. County and City officials for digging up dirt they would often rather keep hidden. Last year L.A. Weekly ran a story on him called "Annoying Human? Or Smartest Man in Downtown L.A.?" He shows up to the Board of Supervisors meetings every Tuesday to scrutinize their agenda, and he is known for speaking up on issues he believes are important. 

This issue is certainly one of them. 

"We are paying the bills for these legal fights," Preven said. "That's why I challenge the fact that [the County is] running up these huge legal bills for bad behavior."

The panel of judges heard the arguments at the Court of Appeal downtown. (Sophia Li / Neon Tommy)
The panel of judges heard the arguments at the Court of Appeal downtown. (Sophia Li / Neon Tommy)
The three judges who presided over the oral arguments yesterday seemed divided on the issue of privileged information. Regardless of his opinion, Judge Richard Aldrich called the case “very interesting.”

Based on Aldrich’s line of questioning, he seemed to strongly agree with the County’s position that billing records are within attorney-client privilege. Another judge, Patti Kitching, seemed more sympathetic to the ACLU’s assertion that billing records, at least for closed cases, deserve to be open to the public. 

That issue of attorney-client privilege is “the main battleground” according to attorney Nicolas Jampol, who represented the ACLU. 

The decision on the appeal is expected come in the next three months.

Reach Web Producer Sophia Li here. Follow her on Twitter here



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