California’s Third District Court of Appeal reversed a 2016 law that banned the use of criminal grand juries to investigate cases involving alleged fatal excessive use of force and fatal shootings by law enforcement officers.
The law transferred the power to charge officers exclusively to prosecutors. SB 277 was passed in response to controversial secret grand jury decisions not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown in in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island.
Today, super-fast news and social media have drowned the original intent of grand juries, according to Mitchell and civil rights groups who backed the bill.
“Secrecy in grand jury proceedings was intended to protect the reputations of the unindicted, individuals accused of crimes whom grand jurors determined should not stand trial,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), when she proposed the bill in 2015. “The unintentional consequence has become a way to keep citizens from being fully informed and involved in the trials of those peace officers accused of abusing their power,” Mitchell said.
The appeals court ruled that state lawmakers cannot take away grand juries’ “constitutional indictment power.” According to the court, while the legislature cannot use a “procedural change” to restrict the power of a constitutional entity. Instead, the court pointed out, state legislators could “take the less cumbersome route of simply reforming the procedural rules of secrecy in such cases.” Opponents of the 2016 law have also argued that publicly releasing grand juries’ transcripts in fatal use-of-force cases would do more to promote transparency than turning over investigations to prosecutors.
The Associated Press’ Sudhin Thanawala has more on the decision.