Since 9/11, law-enforcement initiatives targeting so-called "violent extremism" in the United States have repeatedly risked trampling on the country's fundamental religious, speech, and peaceful assembly rights. A hard-won, multiyear pro bono victory was achieved by DWT and Muslim Advocates, shedding some important light on how this struggle recently played out in Los Angeles.
In late 2007, Deputy Chief Michael Downing of the L.A. Police Dept. (LAPD) testified before the U.S. Senate on "The Role of Local Law Enforcement in Countering Violent Extremism." In his remarks, he revealed that the LAPD had launched a program to "lay out the geographic locations of the many different Muslim populations around Los Angeles" and "take a deeper look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status, and social interactions." Muslim and civil liberties groups immediately protested this program, and two weeks later Deputy Chief Downing said the LAPD was abandoning the project.
Oakland-based Muslim Advocates wanted to know what had led to this project, what exactly it called for, and who was involved. So they filed a request for documents about the program under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). But their request was stonewalled by the LAPD, which claimed it had literally "no records"—a position the department maintained for years. On behalf of Muslim Advocates, a team at DWT filed suit in 2016.
Fast-forward to October 2018, when Judge James Chalfant of Los Angeles County Superior Court awarded Muslim Advocates more than a half-million dollars in attorneys' fees for prevailing in the case, with DWT having compelled the LAPD to produce hundreds of responsive documents.
This included two key documents produced in the final production after DWT won a ruling that said data stored on the city's backup email tapes are not categorically exempt from disclosure under California law. The decision was important because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) presents a hurdle to obtaining backup tapes made for purposes of "disaster recovery," and the question had never before been clearly addressed in a CPRA context.
The newly disclosed records undermined Deputy Chief Downing's claims—in Senate testimony and in depositions—that the "community mapping" program was primarily aimed at connecting underserved, vulnerable Muslim community members with social services. Instead, these documents showed that the program was internally seen as analogous to combatting violent gangs, and was modeled after a British program that contemplated extensive (and unconstitutional) community-based surveillance of locations within the Muslim community in Los Angeles, such as bookstores and mosques.
The DWT team consisted of Brendan Charney, Christiane Roussell, and Karen Henry in the Los Angeles office, and was overseen by Thomas R. Burke in the San Francisco office. Christiane drafted the successful fees motion while Brendan took his first-through-tenth deposition during this litigation, obtaining key admissions from LAPD witnesses. At the fees hearing he presented such a strong case for the importance of the released documents that Judge Chalfant increased the award by 15 percent on the spot. Muslim Advocates' fees award is one of the highest fees recoveries ever in a CPRA matter.