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Open Records & SAPD Nailed Files

A few interesting points about assembling this week's story on civil rights attorney James Myart.

Firstly, not only was the recently-suspended attorney himself indisposed, but a good chunk of the legal community that have handled cases against SAPD were simply not up to returning phone calls. It creates a challenge, but I'm sure they all have the city's best interests as heart as we at the Current do. Right, fellas?

In any event, the number of closed doors (including the spiritual leader of Mt. Zion First Baptist Church putting the call-block on me) led me into unexpected corners.

Digging around in the city's files ultimately resulted in an interesting interview with a former SA-based defense attorney. The conversation ended up not fitting the overall narrative of "Myart's remains," which hit the racks today. However, he raised some points regarding the challenges that face any attorney operating in SA that I think are worth passing along. Chiefly, first-hand perspective related to the uphill contest that fighting police in court represents and how one firm has sought to overcome that challenge.

Attorneys going up against law enforcement are well-acquainted with jury's predisposition to believe the men and women behind the shield, said Phil Stauffer, a former attorney working for "DWI Dude" Jamie Balagia's office in San Antonio.

After all, a badge goes a long way in the public psyche. You might as well be putting a doctor in a lab coat with a stethoscope necktie on the chair, he said.

"If it ever comes down to your word against this cop's word on the witness stand, the cop's gonna win," said Stauffer.

While Stauffer now practices law in Fort Worth, when he was with Balagia the two understood that their clients needed a more aggressive form of defense. So they started their own investigations into the workings of SAPD, using state Open Records law to get their hands on as much public information about the department as possible.

"They were always going to do background investigations on our people, so we decided we'd just start doing it on theirs," Stauffer said. "We just wanted to look and see if there's ever been anything that we could've used at trial and bam! We just came up with a gold mine."

Today, Balagia has a file room dedicated to police disciplinary reports that is the envy of more than a few others. (Balagia, in keeping with what appears to be a new legal trend, failed to return calls for comment.)

Cases of cover-ups and report falsification proved common, Stauffer said.

"It's scary. It's just downright scary - you can quote me on that - the amount of stuff that's out there that SAPD doesn't seem to be doing anything about."

This post isn't intended as an endorsement of Balagia, per se, but any attorney - and we're sure there are a few - that is utilizing state law on the public's right to know, is doing something right.

You know the press, the more Sunshine the better. Why should "civil society" hold all the cards?

Posted by Greg Harman on 6/11/2008
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