A man confined to a state psychiatric hospital for 13 years while awaiting a trial to potentially deem him a sexually violent predator is poised to receive a $2.1 million settlement from the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office.
The Los Angeles County Claims Board recommended last week that to avoid further litigation costs, the Board of Supervisors should award the settlement to Rodrigo DeCasas, who pleaded guilty in 1994 to one count of a forcible lewd act with a child under 14, three counts of lewd acts with children under 14 and one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14. He served seven years in prison.
The supervisors have not yet voted on the recommendation.
Arnoldo Casillas, who is DeCasas’ attorney, and officials with the Public Defender’s Office did not respond Wednesday to phone calls and emails seeking comment. DeCasas’ whereabouts could not be immediately determined.
The settlement proposal stems from a federal lawsuit the Los Angeles man filed in October 2020 against the Public Defender’s Office, several of its attorneys, county Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, and former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who now serves on the Los Angeles City Council.
Constitutional rights violated
The suit alleges DeCasas’ 13-year detention in a psychiatric hospital without ever receiving a trial to determine if he should be classified as a sexually violent predator violated his constitutional rights to due process and was caused by a “systemic breakdown” within the Public Defender’s Office, which had been assigned to represent him.
“This breakdown forced Mr. DeCasas to choose between having prepared counsel and a timely trial. Under the Constitution, he had a right to both,” the suit states. “He got neither.”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan dismissed the civil detention petition against DeCasas on Aug. 20, 2019, finding he had been deprived of a speedy trial. The California Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
“Although the people describe DeCasas’ 13-year confinement in a state mental hospital somewhat euphemistically as being ‘housed’ in contrast to ‘languishing’ in a hospital, a commitment to a mental hospital produces a massive curtailment of liberty,” the Court of Appeals said in an unpublished opinion.
‘Continuances for years at a time’
DeCasas’ lawsuit states claims the Public Defender’s Office and its Sexually Violent Predator Unit, claiming staff shortages and an overwhelming caseload, was solely responsible for the trial delays.
“Mr. DeCasas made it clear that he wanted to ‘get out’ (of the psychiatric hospital) while his public defender waived his appearances and stipulated to continuances for years at a time,” says the complaint. “Mr. DeCasas was not happy with the delays and did not understand the reasons for the delays.”
DeCasas, on the advice of his public defender, did not appear in court for pretrial hearings from 2006 until 2011, and not regularly until 2017, the lawsuit says.
A deputy public defender also testified in court that it was the Sexually Violent Predator Unit’s practice to have defendants waive court appearances to avoid having to “drag them back to and from the hospital,” the lawsuit says.
DeCasas also was forcibly medicated the entire time he was in the psychiatric hospital, impacting his ability to assist in his own defense.
“Despite this, none of the lawyers from the Public Defender’s Office made any effort to meaningfully communicate with him about his case until 2017,” the suit says.
Another setback for DeCasas occurred in 2014, when the Public Defender’s Office cut the size of the Sexually Violent Predator Unit in half despite an “insurmountable workload” and a backlog of cases, sparking outrage among staff, according to the complaint.
“Despite their fear for retaliation, the sexually violent predator attorneys wrote to their supervisors and candidly expressed their concerns and gave concrete examples of the impact that the staff reductions would have on their already overburdened ability to represent their sexually violent predator clients,” the lawsuit says.
As a result of the staff reductions, DeCasas’ case was continued 21 times from 2015 to 2018. “Neither before nor after the staff cuts did Mr. DeCasas ever once waive his right to a speedy trial,” the lawsuit says.
The Public Defender’s Office said in a corrective action plan that the high number of Sexually Violent Predator cases reported to county supervisors and the California Bar Association in connection with the DeCasas lawsuit has been misrepresented.
“Sexually violent predator filings had been continually falling since 2009, at the time of the staff reductions in 2014 and continue to this date where caseloads have remained at or below pre-2014 levels,” the office said.