Capitol Alert

Bill barring grand juries in use-of-force cases clears California Assembly

Then-Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, talks during a Legislative informational hearing on gun laws at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013.
Then-Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, talks during a Legislative informational hearing on gun laws at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Sacramento Bee file

Legislation that would prohibit California from turning to grand juries after police officers use lethal force squeaked out of the California Assembly on a 41-33 vote Thursday.

One of several California police violence-related bills prompted by a spate of nationally watched slayings, Senate Bill 227 reflected a rising distrust of the grand jury process after it failed to yield charges against the officers who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Missouri. Among the bill’s supporters was the state organization representing public defenders.

“The public has a right to know that such a grave allegation is taken seriously and is investigated thoroughly,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, arguing that the grand jury process is too secretive and weakened by different rules for evidence and cross-examination. “SB 227 is a step toward restoring faith in our system of justice.”

Law enforcement groups representing district attorneys and police chiefs opposed the measure, arguing that the bill would undermine prosecutors and noting that California grand juries are rare and differ from those in other states.

“The grand jury system is an appropriate and useful tool, particularly in cases where you’ve got evidence that’s somewhat unclear or there are conflicting accounts or witnesses who are reluctant to cooperate,” said Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Association. “All of those things are often the case in use-of-force investigations.”

According to Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, opposition to her bill “reactivated” in the last 24 hours, with many legislators receiving calls from their district attorneys. A number of Democrats did not vote for SB 227, among them Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, a former sheriff’s official who defended the fairness of grand juries.

“I think district attorneys have a great deal of integrity,” Cooper said. “The reality is that grand juries are effective and they do work.”

Other police-related bills have met varied fates.

Assembly Bill 86, which would have subjected those probes to an outside review rather than leave them solely in the hands of local prosecutors, fizzled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Bills to equip police officers with body cameras and establish rules for the cameras have died or been diluted.

A measure seeking to combat racial profiling by mandating more data collection narrowly cleared the Assembly and is advancing through the Senate.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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