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Court tosses California law that kept grand juries from probing fatal police shootings

Kris Jackson
Kris Jackson South Lake Tahoe Police Department

Acting on a challenge from El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, an appeals court on Tuesday tossed out a 2015 state law that prohibited counties from using grand juries to investigate when police officers fatally shoot suspects or use other types of force that result in their deaths.

The decision from the 3rd District Court of Appeal, based in Sacramento, found that “the Legislature does not have the power to enact a statute that limits the constitutional power of a criminal grand jury to indict any adult accused of a criminal offense.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, was signed into law in August 2015 and supported by groups that argued secrecy surrounding grand jury proceedings allowed prosecutors to avoid making public decisions on controversial police shooting cases. The legislation followed the use of grand juries in other states to probe the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.

Prosecutors objected to the law, saying it tied their hands from using grand juries to compel witnesses to cooperate and provide for more in-depth investigations.

“The grand jury is a tool to get to the truth,” Pierson said in an interview after the court’s action, which stemmed from a June 2015 shooting by a South Lake Tahoe police officer.

In that case, officers were called to a motel at 2:50 a.m. for a report of domestic violence. One officer walking around the back of the motel saw a man wearing only shorts crawling out of a window and shot him fatally in the chest. The officer later told investigators he recognized the man as a gang member from a previous case and thought the suspect had a gun, court records state.

The suspect, who is not named in court papers – but was identified in a Bee news story at the time as Kris Jackson, 22, of Sacramento – was not armed.

Pierson’s office began an investigation into the shooting. In December 2015, his office notified lawyers for the South Lake Tahoe Police Officers’ Association that a grand jury would be convened to investigate after Jan. 1, 2016, when the law took effect. That move set up a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute.

The review of the shooting is still pending, and supporters of the law were dismayed by the court action Tuesday.

“The community must feel confident in the decision of prosecutors to not file charges against police officers,” Ignacio Hernandez, interim executive director for the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said in a statement. “Transparency in the process is a vital component to fostering this trust.

“This court decision undermines one approach to transparency. The Legislature must respond swiftly and with decisive action to strengthen accountability of local law enforcement.”

Sacramento attorney David Mastagni, whose law firm represented the officer, said he had not decided yet whether to appeal the decision overturning the law.

“Initially, the purpose of the legislation was to compel district attorneys to make a prosecutorial decision as opposed to passing the buck (to a grand jury),” Mastagni said. “We’re apparently back to the status quo.”

Mitchell’s office did not have an immediate reaction to the decision Tuesday, but Pierson said lawmakers had been misled by controversies over police shootings when they approved the bill.

“Every day, peace officers put their lives on the line for all us,” Pierson said. “However, sometimes they make mistakes and sometimes they commit criminal misconduct up to murder.

“The public is entitled to a comprehensive, professional and transparent investigation of any use of force, particularly one including the loss of life. Unfortunately, the Legislature was misled by fake news (‘hands up, don’t shoot’) and restricted our ability to conduct those investigations.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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