Law Firm of the Month Justin E. Sterling and Erin Darling

Justin E. Sterling and Erin Darling

Fighting for the Forgotten Women

CRIMINAL DEFENSE AND CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYERS JUSTIN E. STERLING AND ERIN DARLING TEAM UP TO HIGHLIGHT THE OVERLOOKED WOMEN OF THE #METOO MOVEMENT.

By Susan Cushing

The #MeToo Movement beginning as a small spark in 2006 has become a raging blaze attracting an emotional international audience. More importantly, all of this attention is encouraging even the most reticent victims to come forward. Unfortunately, there remains a sector where this bright flame has little effect — an institutional world where women are quite literally kept silent — those incarcerated or under the supervision of court-appointed officers.

Horrifying though it may be to hear starlets reveal degrading events on their path to stardom, for those women who remain at the mercy of their assailants, the nightmare is far worse. For these “invisible” victims, there remains little or no recognition.

Thankfully, two renowned criminal defense and civil rights attorneys have made it their mission to bring the full force of legal retribution on their predators. Justin E. Sterling and Erin Darling, highly successful in their own rights, have teamed up to champion the cause of these otherwise forgotten women. Both men were born and raised in Los Angeles and share the same philosophy on civil rights issues.

“Erin and I were introduced by a mutual colleague and mentor,” says Sterling. “It seemed like a natural fit. We are both L.A. natives and grew up during a very interesting time in Los Angeles, which for me, triggered an interest in L.A. history, social justice, and civil rights. We both left L.A. around the same time to pursue our law degrees. Erin was in Berkeley and I was in San Francisco. Those years in the Bay area were very influential in shaping the kind of attorney I wanted to be. We had very parallel paths in a way. We both came from a social justice/ public interest background. I think our colleague picked up on this potential synergy and made the introduction and the rest is really history. There’s a natural crossover between criminal defense and civil rights litigation. People accused of crimes are oftentimes the very same people who are victims of police abuse and police overreaching, so I think our background in criminal trial defense, both in the public and private sector, contributed to the partnership making sense.”

DEDICATED DEPUTIES OF LAW

A man of deep convictions, Sterling has, since the beginning of his career, been an unflinching advocate for justice, working tirelessly for his clients. While many attorneys are noted for their commitment, few are so widely acknowledged for devoting their career to the cause of justice and representing the criminally accused.

Already an accomplished criminal trial lawyer, Sterling has honed a niche within the civil arena, taking on selected and oftentimes high-profile cases where his clients have been targeted and subjected to misconduct by law enforcement. His courageous representation of citizens who have been subjected to physical injury, racially motivated arrests, sexual abuse, and other types of misconduct is a zealous pursuit that he shares with friend and colleague Darling.

Also a fierce advocate and skilled trial lawyer, Darling has successfully represented clients in a range of criminal cases and prior to launching his own practice, Darling served as a deputy federal public defender where he represented indigent clients facing federal criminal prosecution. He has also assisted in winning a number of civil rights victories while representing farm workers, students and homeless individuals in three major class action lawsuits while working as public counsel.

With their combined years of experience providing legal assistance to community- based struggles and litigating civil rights cases that bring dignity to individuals and social change to communities, Sterling and Darling are prepared to take on the most offensive and pervasive misconduct cases imaginable-those committed by the very people whose job it is to protect and serve.

TEAMING UP

If ever there were an ideal duo to take on this particular crusade surely, it’s the partnership of Sterling and Darling. Bolstered with both experience and a driving passion to protect those who cannot defend themselves, together they are a formidable force. Because their mission is two-fold-to secure justice for the victims and expose both the perpetrator and corruption within the system — the attorneys realize the fight must be on two major fronts-the courtroom and the media. Sterling and Darling’s cases have made national headlines, are consistently reported on by local news outlets such as the LA Times, ABC, CBS, and Fox, and have also been featured in niche outlets such as the award-winning investigative journalism site WitnessLA, which has profiled their cases in the series entitled #MeTooBehindBars.

“I became a lawyer to help vulnerable people and to address structural inequality,” says Darling. “The civil rights cases that Justin and I have litigated do just that. Our clients have suffered as a result of institutional failure, not just individual bad actors. We can’t undo the trauma, but we can get a measure of justice and accountability from these institutions.”

By joining forces, the two attorneys are taking on a situation that not only brings to light a shameful disregard for human rights, but an offensive breakdown in our law enforcement structure.

Sadly, these do not appear to be isolated incidents. In fact, already the pair have exposed a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy arrested and charged with six counts of sexual assault on female prisoners and a probation officer working at an all-female juvenile probation camp who molested female detainees. And these are just two examples.

“You start out just wanting to do right by your client and obtain some sense of justice for them,” Sterling says. “But when a governmental entity is compelled to pay out large sums of money, it can also be a catalyst for meaningful policy change and systematic reform. The root causes in these cases and many others that we are involved with stems from institutional failures. Like a fish — a fish rots from the top down, right? Large legal settlements can, and hopefully will, act as incentives to fix a broken way. Big picture would be to rid the system of law enforcement abuse, specifically, the overt sexual abuse of female inmates that are in the care of male officers.”

Sterling continues, “We’ve seen a paradigm shift because of #MeToo and #TimesUp and other culturally significant movements that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and so I think that those ideas will play a significant role in future litigation. We’ve seen its impact in the film industry, in sports, in politics, and the legislature is starting to respond. I definitely think it will impact sexual assault cases in the civil rights realm, whether it be settlements or jury verdicts.”

AN ILLUSTRATION OF FAILURE

While each case is unique and terrible in its own way, for the two attorneys, one case comes to both their minds as an illustration of just how much the justice system has failed these women. Or, as in the following case — girls.

According to its website, Camp Scudder is a residential juvenile facility designed to “reunify the minor with their family, to reintegrate the minor into the community, and to assist the minor in developing the social skills and behavior management skills needed to lead a law-abiding life.”

However, at least four teens residing at the camp, ranging in age from 15 to 18 were exposed to much more than this. Their tormentor was former L.A. County probation officer, Oscar David Calderon, 33. Pleading guilty to two felony counts of assault under the color of authority, for “inappropriately touching” two girls at the camp, he was sentenced to a year in jail followed by five years of probation. He was forced to resign as a County probation officer.

In her statement, their young client described the nightmare she suffered. “I spent almost a year in a locked-down facility, with a disgusting, horny, grown man that’s supposedly my probation officer. I’ve never been blackmailed, let alone sexually abused, until I entered that camp,” she said, according to a copy of the impact statement. “It’s been two years, and I still feel it. I feel the depression of the past, and the anxiety of the future. I can still smell his disgusting breath when he kissed me.”

According to Sterling and Darling’s federal lawsuit against the county and the Los Angeles County Probation Department, several other officers, including a female supervisor, were aware of what was going on and did nothing. In July, the Board of Supervisors approved a one-million-dollar settlement for the case.

“The argument that it’s just one bad apple — that fails here.” Sterling says. “The institution itself failed and ultimately our client paid the price.” Darling adds, “It’s not just a bad apple, like you often hear. This was something that was complained about, and they didn’t do anything about it.”

Equally offensive, the second case involved an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy — Giancarlo Scotti, who was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting female inmates at the Century Regional Detention Facility, a female-only jail, located just outside of Downtown Los Angeles. The case of Scotti has made local and national headlines. The media coverage, combined with Sterling and Darling’s federal lawsuit against the County of L.A. and the Sheriff’s Department, along with the discovery that the county had not been complying with a federal law designed to prevent the sexual abuse of inmates, has triggered a demand for change both from rank and file officers and senior members of law enforcement.

Public officials have also called for change in the wake of Sterling and Darling’s litigation, most recently the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors vowing to make these issues and proposed reform a priority for L.A. Sterling and Darling’s federal suit against the county stemming from deputy Scotti’s crimes settled in April for a record amount for cases of its kind and is awaiting final approval from the Board of Supervisors.

In both instances, clients reported receiving threats and retribution from their tormentors. Prescribed medication and mental health counseling were denied to one woman after trying to report abuse. The young woman in the camp, she was constantly threatened if she failed to obey including, “I will fuck up your court reports.”

“For this young victim, the abuser ensured his victim’s silence with threats of derogatory court reports which he had direct control over,” Sterling says. “She feared that her release date would be compromised since he would threaten to file negative progress reports with the court. The retaliation she experienced when she tried to report it, the fact that supervisors knew what was happening and were aware of the culture of abuse and mistreatment of female inmates is unconscionable.”

TRIGGERING CHANGE

“Erin and I are proud of the work we’re doing but we — and others like us in our field — have to keep fighting and bringing these kinds of actions because there’s still a lot more work to be done. It’s gratifying to see that our litigation has triggered policy change and reform within Los Angeles County jails and juvenile detention facilities,” says Sterling. “Certainly, Justin and I are proud of our work representing individuals and groups who are overpowered and underserved,” says Darling. “It’s rewarding to see tangible results from a legal system that is often unresponsive to regular people.”

Then, momentarily dropping his polished, professional demeanor he adds with a smile, “I’m also stoked that two surfers from L.A. are bringing important civil rights cases in L.A.”

Law Offices of Justin E. Sterling
15760 Ventura Blvd., Suite 700
Encino, CA 91436
(818) 995-9452
www.sterlingdefense.com

Law Offices of Erin Darling
3435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2910
Los Angeles, CA 90010
(323) 736-2230
www.erindarlinglaw.com