PALMDALE – The Community Action League (TCAL) rallied residents Saturday to take a stand against a justice system they claim is failing the poor and minority communities of Lancaster and Palmdale.
“How many of you are fired up today?” Board Member V. Jesse Smith said, to cheers from the diverse crowd of about 75. “It’s time for us to take back our justice system!”
Smith’s comments came during TCAL’s Justice Forum Saturday afternoon at the Palmdale Moose Lodge. The Forum featured a panel of attorneys who educated residents about the justice process and gave advice on countering the elements of a system they claim puts minorities at a disadvantage.
Private defense attorney Amy Konstantelos cautioned the crowd against using public defenders, whom she said were not invested in the community. “There are only so many people willing to live up here and so the majority [of public defenders] are coming from other areas, coming with the promise that they only have to stay 18 months,” Konstantelos said. “They are short timers and they’re just counting their days until they can get out.”
She also claimed that public defenders in the AV were often new and inexperienced.
“In essence, they are practicing on you,” Konstantelos said.
Another attorney panelist, RJ Manuelian, a criminal defense attorney from Los Angeles, agreed.
“It shocks me in Lancaster that they’re sending people up here that don’t have experience to sort of work on you like a project and that’s a shame,” he said.
Attorney panelists also said judges were scaring defendants into taking plea deals because there wasn’t enough time or space in the courts to handle all the cases.
They urged attendees to assert their constitutional rights and demand a jury trial over a plea bargain.
“In Lancaster more than other places, they have a shortage of courtrooms for the number of cases they have,” said Konstantelos. ”If everyone asserted their constitutional rights up here and demanded a jury trial, this system would grind to a stop.”
“Friends don’t let their friends plead guilty,” Manuelian said. “If you believe you haven’t committed a crime, don’t take a deal. What are you scared about?”
Attendees were given the opportunity to pose specific questions to the attorney panel. Many attendees made claims of being unfairly harassed and in some cases arrested by deputies.
Manuelian encouraged residents to file a complaint immediately after each alleged incident.
“You should comply with the police, but what I would do to make their jobs a little more difficult and to create more of a nightmare for them, as far as paperwork, is complain,” Manuelian said. “If you do that, and he does that, and everybody does that, then eventually that list gets into an attorney’s hands and ultimately will be able to be used to avoid future circumstances.”
Manuelian also suggested that residents combine their complaints into a possible class action suit against the sheriff’s department.
“The only way your voices are heard in this society with sheriffs breathing down your necks is when you hit them in the pockets,” he said.
During the meeting, residents were encouraged to write their names and contact information on a sheet labeled “Department of Justice Complaints,” to allow TCAL Board Members to contact them for future actions.
“We’re going to follow up with the complaints and forward the complaints as deemed necessary to the appropriate attorneys,” said TCAL Board Member Nigel Holly. “We want to make sure that they are properly represented and that they are not being railroaded.”
The meeting also included a voter registration table. Additionally, Steve Ipsen, candidate for Los Angeles County District Attorney 2012, detailed his Reform First plan.