Two years ago, with much fanfare, Senate Bill 227 became law, banning the use of grand juries in officer-involved shooting cases. This misguided legislation was passed in part due to the widely disseminated narrative that Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer while trying to surrender and shouting, “Hands up don’t shoot.”
This narrative also included the local district attorney covering up the shooting using a grand jury. Ironically, Senate Bill 227 passed out of the Legislature and became law after then-Attorney General Eric Holder debunked the entire salacious narrative in a detailed 83-page report.
Every day, law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Unfortunately, their job has been getting more difficult and more dangerous over the last few years.
The anti-police rhetoric has been fueled by misguided politicians, special interest groups, false narratives in the news media, and yes, the misconduct of a few. While not as prevalent as the media has portrayed, officer-involved fatal-force cases do occur and occasionally these very difficult cases need to be investigated by a grand jury.
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The district attorney has the responsibility to investigate any potential criminal activity, regardless of whom the suspect may be, and hold that person or persons accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the public is entitled to a comprehensive, professional and transparent investigation. The grand jury is an essential tool and the misguided ban imposed by SB 227 in fact made it more difficult to investigate use-of-force cases.
Not only was SB 227 objectionable for these reasons, but also because it clearly violated the California Constitution. As a result, my office, supported by prosecutors throughout California, challenged this new law in court.
Earlier this year, the 3rd District Court of Appeal struck down SB 227, finding it unconstitutional. Supporters of SB 227 unsuccessfully challenged this opinion in the California Supreme Court.
At the same time, California prosecutors sought to maintain the grand jury as an effective tool to investigate use-of-force cases, yet modify the rules to ensure transparency in cases not resulting in an indictment. On Sept. 1, with very little fanfare, a bipartisan fix was finally signed into law.
Assembly Bill 1024, authored by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, now requires a court to disclose all or a part of a grand jury indictment proceeding transcript if the grand jury decides not to return an indictment concerning an offense that involves a shooting or use of excessive force by a peace officer. In an era where political posturing and grandstanding seem to drive discourse, it’s refreshing to see the system work on behalf of Californians.
We would all be better served by dialing down the rhetoric and refocusing on concrete solutions rather than narratives and political talking points. A good place to start is the catastrophic crisis of our jails and prisons being transformed into expensive and ineffective mental health facilities. Californians deserve no less.
Vern Pierson is the elected district attorney of El Dorado County and has been a prosecutor for 25 years. Reach him at info@ElDoradoDA.com.