California Governor Passes Ban On Use Of Grand Juries In Officer-Involved Killings

Grand juries have proven capable of handing down nearly any indictment requested by prosecutors… if it’s just a citizen on the receiving end. What’s normally a rubber-stamping of charge recommendations tends to fall apart when a police officer is the potential defendant. With rare exceptions, actions that would have seen the average citizen charged with a crime are dismissed by grand juries — whose only true consistency appears to be compliance. If a prosecutordoesn’t want someone charged, a grand jury can just as easily be led in that direction as well.

California governor Jerry Brown is looking to even the odds. While the best strategy would be to dump the grand jury system altogether, Brown is at least opting for the next best thing.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Tuesday making California the first state in the nation to ban the use of grand juries to decide whether police officers should face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty.

In this move, there’s a tacit admission that grand juries will buy whatever a cop-friendly prosecutor chooses to sell them. Beyond that, there’s an open admission that grand jury proceedings are about as opaque as the legal process can get.

“What the governor’s decision says is, he gets it — the people don’t want secrecy when it comes to officer-involved shootings,” said retired judge and former San Jose independent police auditor LaDoris Cordell, the first African-American appointed as a judge in Northern California and a key supporter of the bill. “We’re not trying to get more officers indicted. We’re saying, ‘Whatever you decide, do it in the open.'”

This should be the case in every grand jury presentment, not just those pertaining to police officers. And there’s a lot of area left uncovered by the limitation of this ban to only the times when an officer manages to kill someone. But it’s better than the current situation, which is generally a citizen’s jailhouse railroad and an officer’s slightly-delayed vehicle of absolution.

And, of course, prosecutors and police unions are against it.

[T]he California District Attorneys Association and the California Police Chiefs Association opposed the ban, saying the grand jury should be preserved as an option. Imposing a blanket prohibition would discriminate against police officers on the basis of their occupation, they argued.

As opposed to being discriminated for on the basis of their occupation? I don’t think many people feel a grand jury has anything to do with due process. And that goes both ways. I’m sure cops would rather face a grand jury than a real “jury of their peers.” The odds of walking away without charges is greatly increased in the former situation.

The two agencies unwilling to see their own thrown to the wolves face the harrowing nightmare that is due process have a suggestion: let’s not scrap the cop-friendly grand jury system. Instead, let’s put all the sunlight we can on cases where officers have been declared to have Done Nothing Wrong.

The association suggested that the Legislature could increase transparency by allowing grand jury transcripts to be released in cases for which no one was indicted.

The only thing transparent about these entities is their self-interest. The only way something like this could be framed as a “concession” is if the person delivering it is completely devoid of self-awareness and/or a conscience. While it would allow for some Monday morning quarterbacking of the grand jury’s decision, it doesn’t do anything to stop the underlying problem: that cops are routinely treated very differently than citizens by grand juries.

Mark Zahner of the District Attorneys Association, appears to have divested himself of his self-awareness and conscience years ago.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous to espouse or believe that police officers get treated any differently than anyone else.”

It’s absolutely ludicrous to espouse or believe that police officers get treated any differentlythan anyone else.

Mark Zahner: absolutely ludicrous.