Thursday, February 23, 2017
Becerra Urges Review of Ruling Striking Down Ban on Grand Jury Police Shooting Probes
By a MetNews Staff Writer
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra yesterday asked the California Supreme Court to review a Third District Court of Appeal ruling invalidating a 2015 law that bars grand juries from inquiring into a police officer’s use of lethal force.
“As California’s chief law officer, I take very seriously my oath to defend and enforce the laws of our great state,” Becerra said in a statement. “This case raises important questions about the power of the legislature under the state constitution and merits further review.”
The Court of Appeal ruled last month in People ex rel. Pierson v. Superior Court that the amendment to Penal Code §917 intrudes on the constitutional authority of the grand jury. The legislation, Justice M. Kathleen Butz noted, is “the first legislative effort in 167 years to constrict the grand jury’s power under the Constitution to exercise its power of indictment.”
The law provides that “the grand jury shall not inquire into an offense that involves a shooting or use of excessive force by a peace officer…that led to the death of a person being detained or arrested by the peace officer.” It was enacted in response to high-profile police shootings around the country, and its stated purpose was to increase transparency and accountability in court proceedings that determine whether charges will be brought against an officer who uses deadly force during an arrest.
Becerra said in his amicus letter he was concerned that the ruling was not supported by the language or history of the California Constitution, and that it may have broader consequences. Although his office has had no prior involvement in the case, Becerra said he was “committed to participate in any future proceedings ordered by the Supreme Court.”
The litigation arose out of proceedings initiated by El Dorado District Attorney Vern Pierson in connection with a South Lake Tahoe police officer’s fatal shooting of a suspect. When Pierson began subpoenaing witnesses, including the officer and the police chief, the South Lake Tahoe Police Officers’ Association and Police Supervisors’ Association filed motions to quash the subpoenas and dismiss the grand jury.
El Dorado Superior Court Judge James R. Wagoner granted the motions, and Pierson sought a writ. The Court of Appeal directed the trial court to vacate its orders.
“[W[e cannot reach a conclusion other than to find 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. To allow the Legislature to restrict this constitutional role in part would be to concede the power to restrict it in its entirety, a position that has never been endorsed in any precedent in the entire history of our jurisprudence, and which was specifically withheld from the Legislature in the enactment of the Constitution of 1879. We therefore must find that the amendments to section 917 are unconstitutional on this basis.”
She commented that “[i]t is self-evident that the public has an interest in the investigation of a peace officer’s use of lethal force,” that the Legislature had this in mind in amending §917, and that its objective was “salutary.” The jurist said that while it cannot accomplish its goal through a statute, “[t]he Legislature instead must seek a constitutional amendment to accomplish the same end as section 917, or otherwise act to amend grand jury procedures in lethal force cases to achieve its objective of greater ‘transparency’ and accountability.”
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