Another layer of opacity shielding bad cops from accountability has been lifted in California. Accountability and transparency hasn’t exactly been welcomed by the state’s law enforcement agencies, but recent developments have forced it upon these unwelcoming recipients.
As of the first of this year, police misconduct and use-of-force records are now obtainable via public records requests. For years, these have been locked away by statute, freeing California cops from the unimaginable horror of public accountability. This new law has raised several legal challenges from cops and their representatives, but so far, none of those have found courts willing to grant them their injunction requests.
Now, some of these same cops are going to find themselves even more exposed. The state’s top court has just ruled that prosecutors must be informed about officers’ past misconduct. The ruling may only discuss a single department, but it will affect every law enforcement agency in the state, as Maura Dolan reports for the L.A. Times.
The California Supreme Court decided unanimously Monday that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies may alert prosecutors that a deputy who is slated to testify in a criminal case has a history of misconduct.
The decision overturned a Court of Appeal ruling that barred the sheriff from giving prosecutors the names of deputies who had committed misconduct, including lying, taking bribes, tampering with evidence, using unreasonable force or engaging in domestic violence.
The misconduct law enforcement agencies were previously allowed to keep secret is directly tied to exculpatory evidence owed to defendants. Anything that might diminish the credibility of a witness is supposed to be fair game. Unless, of course, it’s a long history of abuse and misconduct by the officer on the stand. That’s when cops start claiming these are confidential employment records rather than litanies of perpetrated abuse.
These lists of questionable officers are called “Brady lists,” after the court decision establishing defendants’ right to obtain exculpatory evidence from the government. In many states, these lists are still secret. That is no longer the case in California.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has about 300 deputies on its Brady list. It sought an injunction blocking the disclosure of these names, claiming they were private “personnel records” that shouldn’t make their way into open court. The lower court agreed. The state Supreme Court does not [PDF].
First, the new public records law removes some misconduct and use-of-force records from the state’s personnel records exception. It doesn’t remove everything but it does make it clear that any information the public can obtain with records requests cannot be declared “confidential” simply because it’s being used in court.
Second, the ruling doesn’t make Brady lists available to the general public. It only makes them available to prosecutors. Judges will view these submissions in private and decide what information is owed to defendants. This is not a blanket lifting of confidentiality, but rather a more limited approach guided by the court. But it does mean more information will make its way to defendants and, obviously, into open court.
The deputies’ union makes several arguments as to why these officers should never have their misdeeds discussed in court, but the state’s top court isn’t buying it. Law enforcement agencies might be separate from prosecutors’ offices, but they share some of the same obligations.
The Fourteenth Amendment underlying Brady imposes obligations on states and their agents — not just, derivatively, on prosecutors. Law enforcement personnel are required to share Brady material with the prosecution. (See, e.g., Carrillo v County of Los Angeles (9th Cir. 2015) 798 F.3d 1210, 1219-1223 & fn. 12.) The harder it is for prosecutors to access that material, the greater the need for deputies to volunteer it.
The Association’s contrary view that “Brady relates only to the prosecutor” and that “Brady . . . does not impose obligations on law enforcement” is distressing and wrong. The prosecution may bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that necessary disclosures are made to the defense (see In re Brown, supra, 17 Cal.4th at p. 881), but that does not mean law enforcement personnel have no role to play.
Unfortunately, the ruling stops short of creating an obligation to share this information with the defense, but it does make it clear law enforcement agencies can longer withhold it from prosecutors. It does at least establish a review process to handle defense requests for Brady list info so at least some of what’s been turned over can be used to challenge the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses. It’s not a massive step forward, but it’s far better than the opacity California law enforcement agencies have grown accustomed to. Considering the number of deputies in the state with, shall we say, job performance issues, the flow of Brady info should be steady… and perpetual.