Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Eliminating Grand Jury in Police Violence Cases in CA? Good Intentions, Bad Idea

Senator Holly Mitchel, a well-intentioned and well-respected member of the California Senate, has proposed SB 227, which consists of the following:

Existing law requires a grand jury to inquire into willful or corrupt misconduct in office by a public officer in the county. Existing law also authorizes a member of a grand jury, if he or she knows or has reason to believe that a public offense has been committed, to declare it to his or her fellow jurors, who are then authorized by existing law to investigate it.

This bill would prohibit a grand jury from inquiring into an offense or misconduct that involves a shooting or use of excessive force by a peace officer, as specified, that led to the death of a person being detained or arrested by the peace officer. officer, unless the offense was declared to the grand jury by one of its members, as described above.

This idea is, of course, prompted by the recent failures to indict in the cases involving the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It's populistic, and I'm sure will have its fans, but it's a bad idea for the following reasons:

1. It's unnecessary. In CA, we haven't had cases of failures to indict at the grand jury level specifically. This is simply not a problem in this state. If it ain't broken, don't fix it with hastily-made laws.

2. It's cosmetic. Since the prosecutors control the grand jury anyway, eliminating it merely means that the prosecutors will decline to prosecute, rather than prosecuting and passing the buck, presumably, to the grand jury, which they also control.

3. It categorically treats one category of defendants differently than the rest in terms of their constitutional rights. One can think of other ways to handle sensitive inquiries into police violence--moving them from the county to the state, from the state to federal authorities--without taking away their constitutional rights. While there is no federal right to a grand jury, there is one in California. Grand juries are ineffectual, usually, as they simply do what the district attorney wants them to do, but they are, at least in theory, supposed to provide another inquisitorial mechanism and a control. If we want to eliminate them, let's eliminate them across the board, not only for one category of offenders.

4. It is important to know all the facts. I've read numerous shrill, angry online voices arguing that it is racist to withhold judgment when one does not know all the facts. I find this alarming and massively disturbing. Police officers are people, too; they, too, deserve to benefit from doubt when they are criminal defendants; and no amount of screaming about what we are sure happened in a police-citizen encounter can overcome the simple fact that we were not physically there. An inquiry is designed to find out what the facts were. It is either effective, in which case we want to keep it, or ineffective, in which case we want to get rid of it, but it is outrageous to discard the facts when they don't work for us politically.

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