Friday, May 8, 2015

California Senate Bans Grand Jury Investigations of Officer Involved Critical Incidents

On May 7, 2015, the California Senate voted to ban the use of grand juries to investigate officer involved critical incidents. Specifically, Senate Bill 227 prohibits a grand jury from inquiring into an offense or misconduct that involves a shooting or the use of excessive force by a peace officer that lead to the death of a person being detained or arrested by the peace officer.

Under current law there are two tracks a district attorney can take to file a case. Under one track, the district attorney can file a complaint in criminal court and schedule a preliminary hearing.  At the preliminary hearing the district attorney and the defense attorney present witnesses and evidence subject to cross-examination in open court. The judge then makes a determination of probable cause based on the evidence. If there is probable cause, the judge issues an information which lays the foundation for the criminal case.

The district attorney can also send the case to a grand jury. The grand jury then hears evidence presented in secret. The district attorney is allowed to present evidence favorable to his or her case without calling all relevant witnesses and without cross-examination. The grand jury decides if there is probable cause. If the grand jury dismisses the indictment, then the proceedings remain secret.

Senator Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, argued the lack of transparency in the grand jury process and in grand jury deliberations has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion regarding the justice system and officer involved critical incidents. According to Senator Mitchell, requiring a district attorney to bring the case through a complaint allows the public to view the proceedings. If the public does not agree with the district attorney the public can then remove the district attorney at the next election.

The bill passed the senate on May 7 by a vote of 23-12. All of the "yes" votes came from Senate Democrats. The bill now moves to the Assembly for further review.