Cops Question Database

— Bill Pettingill, the senior deputy county counsel who represented the public defender in the case, responds that that situation isn't likely. "That's the way it happens on TV. In practice, it doesn't really work that way, because there's not a public defender out there who would want to incur that wrath of the judge for trying to back-door some inadmissible evidence." Pettingill laughs. "In my 12 years of experience, I've seen lawyers try to back-door evidence in and the judge sanction them and berate them in front of people. In practice, it isn't going to happen. A lawyer doesn't want to jeopardize his or her own case by engaging in nefarious practices. It's not worth it."

Steven Carroll believes the whole issue has been "sensationalized" by Bobbitt, the police officers associations, and by the Union-Tribune, which, in three stories, labeled the public defender's project a "database" and a means by which the defender would "research patterns of conduct -- and allegations of misconduct." "I would respond," Carroll says, "by saying it's not really a database. The word 'database' has the connotation that I've got this huge accumulation of electronic storage files that I'm compiling in some kind of separate format, and it's not true. The idea is basically to have a retrieval system. All we're doing is trying to create a way to refind what we have once discovered as a part of case preparation. If one attorney on one case discovers impeaching evidence about a police officer, it is our goal to not have that stuck in a hard-copy file and put on a shelf and forgotten so that a month later somebody has to reinvent the wheel and go find the same data."

Carroll adds, "When the story first appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, it threw out the hint that we were searching divorce records of police officers and digging into their private lives. In truth, we had one case where a private attorney had a record of domestic violence on a police officer. He gave us that information when we had that same officer on another case involving violence. But it becomes sensationalized when it looks like we're running over to the family court and digging through records to see if police officers are getting divorced and if their divorces hold allegations of violence. We're not doing that. We have never gone over to family court to mine their files."

After meetings between the two sides produced no resolution, Bobbitt sent a request to see the "database" under the California Public Records Act. Carroll refused, claiming that, though his office is funded by the county government, his files are privileged information between him and his clients, not government records open to public perusal.

In the meantime, the project was garnering statewide attention. The State Public Defenders Association named it their "Defender Program of the Year for 2001." And in April of last year, state senator Steve Peace of Chula Vista summoned Bobbitt and Carroll to a meeting on the issue in Sacramento.

In July, Bobbitt filed suit on behalf of the eight associations. On October 19, 2001, the two sides presented oral arguments before Judge Nevitt. In a ruling dated November 1, 2001, he denied Bobbitt's motion based largely on a 1981 United States Supreme Court decision, brought to his attention by Pettingill, in which the high court observed that a public defender "is not acting on behalf of the state; he is the state's adversary," and, "[A] public defender does not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding."

Bobbitt decided to appeal the decision and waits for the announcement of a trial date from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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