PJDC Condemns Santa Clara District Attorney Rosen’s Attack on Public Defender’s Free Speech Rights

On June 3, 2020, in the midst of national outrage over racial disparities and mistreatment of Black people in the justice system, Santa Clara County Alternate Public Defender Sajid Khan published a piece on his personal blog entitled, “be mad at the police, but be even madder at the DA’s offices that perpetuate and protect them.

Khan encouraged community members to make their voices heard and included a map of “honk spots” to include juvenile hall, the main jail, police station, courthouse, sheriff’s department, and the office of the district attorney.

He urged the community to consider voicing its objection to the status quo at the ballot box: “So yes, let’s rally at city halls and at the local police station. But don’t forget to make it loud and clear to our DA’s offices that black lives matter. Better yet, make it even clearer at the polling station to vote them out next time they’re up for election.” Khan’s blog post was published the next day as an Op-Ed by a local publication, minus the “Honk Spots” map.

In response to Mr. Khan’s impassioned cries for change, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, the county’s top law enforcement official, promised to file a whistleblower complaint – claiming that he and his colleagues felt threatened by Khan’s writing based on its strong rhetoric and the fact that Khan posted a map of a protest  route. Rosen indicated that he hoped the whistleblower complaint would trigger the launch of a county investigation.

PJDC stands with Sajid Khan and condemns this transparent attempt by the DA to divert attention from the very real issues raised by Mr. Khan’s writing.  Although District Attorney Rosen has often presented himself as a progressive prosecutor, the reality is that he has clung to discredited theories of criminal justice that have resulted in mass incarceration of people of color.  Most recently, he has refused to accept legislative changes that would prevent children who are only 14 or 15 years-old from being tried in the adult system.

Beyond his divergent views, it is unacceptable for District Attorney Rosen to threaten legal action against Sajid Khan for the exercise of his First Amendment right to free expression. While Rosen has written that “I will be thinking in coming days, weeks and months about ways we can make what we do more equitable, more fair, and more just,” his actions belie that. Nor is he alone. Public defenders are being punished across the country by other “justice partners” for their efforts to change criminal justice practices such as inadequate funding for defense services, prosecutorial misconduct, and unjust practices that keep poor people of color incarcerated.

As defenders of young people around the state, we are only too aware that the battles we fight every day in the courtroom to overcome racial bias in individual cases are not enough.  The system itself is structurally designed to funnel young people of color into the system and to interfere with any hope they have of reaching healthy adulthood. We have a moral duty to speak out for real change going forward. That is precisely what Sajid Khan has done.