After decades of secrecy surrounding police misconduct, California has a new law that is designed to restore trust in our criminal justice system. And what we’ve seen since Senate Bill 1421 took effect in January has been both illuminating and deeply concerning, demonstrating why the measure was necessary to ensure that law enforcement is both transparent and accountable.
Records released so far have revealed a number of unreported sexual assault cases involving police officers, as well as instances of dishonesty. These revelations suggest that to ensure that outcomes in our criminal justice system are fair and just, it is not enough to make this information public in theory.
Also, relying on newspapers and individuals to request such records will not guarantee that dishonesty by officers will be revealed or that court cases don’t involve lying witnesses. District attorneys throughout the state must start requesting all police misconduct records that are disclosable under SB 1421 in order to safeguard our justice system and make sure every conviction is justified.
A recent Los Angeles Times story offered a glimpse of what’s at stake. The report revealed that a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detective had been allowed to testify in numerous cases – including those in which the charges could have resulted in life sentences – despite having a documented history of dishonesty dating back to 2003. The sheriff’s office never disclosed the homicide detective’s history to prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges or jurors.
Jurors who are not aware that a witness has a history of lying under oath are missing critical information needed to assess the reliability of their testimony.
The detective’s disciplinary records, which stemmed from an incident in which he punched a suspect several times and lied about it, had been shielded from the public until the passage of SB 1421. The law allows certain police files, specifically those related to on-duty shootings and uses of force causing death or great bodily injury, sexual assault and lying on the job, to be publicly disclosed.
It was only after reporters obtained those documents via an SB 1421 request and brought them to the attention of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office that prosecutors informed defense lawyers that their cases may have been tainted by a dishonest officer. More than 30 cases could now be under review.
Access to such information is necessary to preserve public trust in the integrity of the criminal justice system. With criminal cases often hinging upon law enforcement testimony, an officer’s word can end up being the difference between innocence and guilt. It is therefore critical for prosecutors not to build their cases around officers who have proven themselves untrustworthy or unreliable.
Although SB 1421 has given us a way to begin identifying potentially problematic convictions, the process isn’t working smoothly. Many of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies are still not releasing records that are now public under the law. And when departments have disclosed records, they’ve often done so in a frustratingly slow and, according to critics, deliberately unhelpful manner. This is unacceptable.
An August state Supreme Court decision moved us toward further transparency by clarifying that police agencies are permitted to alert prosecutors about the disciplinary records of officers who might testify in cases. But such disclosure remains voluntary, raising the possibility that law enforcement will simply continue to withhold relevant information.
Under the current structure, it appears that journalists and defense attorneys have taken on the sole responsibility for seeking records under SB 1421. This, too, is unacceptable.
In Los Angeles, dozens of criminal cases may now have been tarnished by a single dishonest officer. This should be of immediate concern to our elected district attorneys, whose duty is to seek justice, not just convictions. Like it or not, they will eventually be forced to address any questionable convictions that may emerge as a result of these disclosures.
There’s no sense in delaying the inevitable: Every district attorney’s office in California should move promptly to file their own SB 1421 requests. This would allow them to begin proactively rooting out police misconduct that may have tainted previous cases, while also helping them to fulfill their constitutional obligation to disclose evidence favorable to the defense in current and future cases.
I am pleased to see that SB 1421 has given California tools to bring further transparency and accountability to our criminal justice system. But now we must commit to using those tools, or risk further undermining the public’s faith in the fairness and equitability of that system.