Police use-of-force has been big news in this country for several years now. A large segment of the public believes that the police have used fatal force without just cause. They cite many high-profile cases: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so on. These police killings have triggered a storm of protests across the country, including in California. In some of these cases, the officer or officers involved faced possible charges of manslaughter or even murder. In virtually all of these cases, the decision as to whether to prosecute these officers is left to a secret grand jury proceedings. With few exceptions, the grand juries have found that an indictment of the officer is not supported by the evidence. The public often perceives the grand jury as biased in favor of the cops and there has been a high level of distrust in the grand jury system. It doesn’t help that the proceedings are held in secret.
California became the first state in the country to address the public’s distrust of the grand jury system as employed in officer-involved lethal force cases. In 2015, Governor Brown signed into law a bill, SB 227, prohibiting the use of grand juries in California when an officer has used lethal force under circumstances that are possibly criminal. Rather, if a cop was to be charged, the district attorney would have to directly file the criminal complaint and the case would proceed through an open preliminary hearing. Thereafter, charges by what is called an information would be filed by the district attorney if the evidence at the preliminary hearing showed a reasonable possibility that the officer’s use of lethal force was a criminal act. Prior to enactment of SB 227, California prosecutors had the option of going to the grand jury or directly filing charges by a criminal complaint.
Not surprisingly prosecutors opposed SB 277. They argued that the grand jury system, by the fact that it is held in secret, facilitates the discovery of the truth. The grand jury proceedings, they argued, permits them to compel witnesses to testify and “offer a fuller seeking of the truth for all sides. . ..” (SB 227 Arguments in Opposition.) Prosecutors also objected because they argued that if they could not use the grand jury as an investigation tool in police lethal force cases, it hampered their ability to properly investigate the incident.