THE CAL SUPREMES PICK STATE LAW OVER CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS IN A RULING ABOUT WHO CAN ACCESS POLICE PERSONNEL FILES
On Monday, July 6, the California Supreme Court ruled that defense attorneys don’t need any extra help from prosecutors in gaining the limited access that the law allows to the disciplinary records of police officers—even if the prosecutor has firm reasons to believe that the records would likely be of exculpatory value to the defendant.
If that sounds confusing….you have apprehended the situation correctly
Okay, here’s the deal. Monday’s ruling had to do with a San Francisco man, Daryl Lee Johnson, who was charged in November 2012 in a domestic violence case with hitting a girl in the head while they were both in a private home and grabbing her cell phone. (We have no idea if Mr. Johnson is guilty or innocent of the charges. That isn’t the point here.)
As the domestic violence case ground its way through the state’s justice system, San Francisco prosecutors learned from members of the SF police department that the two arresting officers in Johnson’s case, who were quite naturally witnesses for the prosecution, had things in their personnel records that could be helpful to the defense.
In that the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling of Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to turn over to the defense team anything that could be helpful to their client, in the case of Johnson the prosecutors let the defense know that there might be some stuff in both of the cops’ files that the defense ought to know about.
And….that’s when matters got somewhat complicated.
Under state law, the personnel files of peace officers are protected from prying eyes by the Peace Officers Bill of Rights—or POBR. However, if a defense attorney needs access to a cop’s personnel records because they pertain directly to his client’s defense, he or she can request from a judge the files that pertain exactly to the issue at hand, using what is called a “Pitchess” motion (named after the 1974 California decision of Pitchess v. Superior Court that carved out this legal way to access information located in otherwise confidential peace officer personnel records.) Then it is up to the judge to decide which information, if any, should be provided to the defense.
But in the Johnson case, the defense argued that it didn’t know enough about what might be useful in the two cops’ files to be able to make the narrow cast Pitchess motion that most judges require. So could the prosecutor, under the Brady rule, take a look at the files to see if there was something of relevance in there?
Two lower courts agreed that it would be okay for a prosecutor to look at the police files, and then to turn over to the defense (under Brady rules) anything that might affect the defendant’s case, all subject to protective orders, to also preserve confidentiality.
With me so far?
It helps to know that San Francisco is one of about a dozen California counties that have established committees made up of law enforcement officers who are supposed to review officers’ confidential files in order to tell prosecutors if they contain information that might assist a defendant—things like an officer’s history of false statements, the filing of false police reports, or write ups for excessive force.
Part of the argument in the Johnson case is that it is unealistic to expect the police to be the ones who go fishing through their fellow officers’ confidential files with the same rigor that someone else might. So couldn’t the prosecutors, who are after all an arm of the law, do it as part of their Brady obligation?
Although those two lower courts said yes, the California Supremes said: Actually no. Prosecutors were just as bound by the POBR and the Pitchess rules as anybody else.
(The full ruling may be found here.)
Interestingly, according to Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, SF District Attorney George Gascón-–who seems refreshingly to believe that one of the prime duties of his office is to seek justice—told the court prior to their ruling that his office would continue to review the police committee reports and seek disclosure of files no matter how Monday’s case turned out.
UPDATE: The LA Times Editorial Board wrote a strong, smart and extremely sensible editorial on the ruling, which appeared early Tuesday morning. It is titled “A Setback for Due Process,” which unhappily is exactly the case.
Here’s clip from the editorial:
Prosecutors are constitutionally bound to share with criminal defendants any evidence that undermines the credibility of their witnesses, including police officers. But if that evidence is locked up in confidential police personnel files — for example, in disciplinary or complaint records — how can the district attorney find out about it to turn it over?
In a disappointing decision, the California Supreme Court on Monday denied prosecutors direct access to police personnel files and, in so doing, exacerbated the continuing tug-of-war between state statutes that protect officer confidentiality and the due process rights guaranteed to the accused by the 14th Amendment and fleshed out in the landmark 1963 case of Brady vs. Maryland.
Under the ruling, police officials in many California jurisdictions will continue to be virtual gate-keepers of potentially exculpatory evidence, deciding on their own which records rise to the level of so-called Brady material that they must flag for prosecutors (who, in turn, decide whether to share it with the defense).
But the police should not be expected to be their own watchdogs. Last year, an appeals court ruled that the district attorney should be able to look through their files — without first obtaining a court order — to search for evidence of dishonesty, bias, excessive force or other factors that could undermine officers’ credibility. Only after Brady material is found would the prosecutor have to make what is known as a Pitchess motion, seeking court permission to disclose the information.
And here, really, is the heart of the matter:
The lower court ruling seemed a workable balance between Brady and Pitchess and recognized that Brady, after all, interprets a federal constitutional right and should take precedence over state statutory protections.
(The italics are mine.) It is disappointing that the otherwise mostly sensible court was so short sighted.
The LA Times board also wrote an earlier, very informative editorial on this whole topic back in late May when the case was being argued in front of the state’s Supreme Court. So be sure to take a look at that too.
UNFAIR: A SCIENTIFIC LOOK AT HUMAN BIAS AND OTHER ROOTS OF INJUSTICE
Legal scholar Adam Benforado has written a fascinating and important new book called Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice in which he uses findings from psychology and neuroscience to suggests that our criminal justice system is riddled with tragic inequities and wrongful conclusions because of our fundamental misunderstanding of human biases and how our brains work.
On Monday, Benforado was a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air with Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross where he explained how, in our flawed justice system “…good people with the best of intentions … can get things terribly, terribly wrong.”
The whole interview is more than worth your while. But here’s a clip to get you started:
DAVIES: There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about how jurors decide who they’re going to believe at trial – prosecutors, witnesses. And a lot of people would not be surprised to find that there are studies that suggest people are more likely to believe a person of their own race. There’s other fascinating stuff. Are attractive people or thin people more likely to – or confident people – more likely to be believed in court?
BENFORADO: Yeah, there is evidence that a lot of physical features play a big role in whether people treats a particular witness as credible or not credible. And that’s worrisome. But I think there’s actually a deeper problem with jurors and that is that the things that we think are determining the outcomes of cases – that is the facts and the law – are often not what determines whether someone is convicted or not convicted, how long a sentence is. What matters most are the particular backgrounds and identities of the jurors.
So I teach criminal law. One of the areas that I teach is rape law, and my casebook takes many pages, discussing all of the different nuances across the different states. And there’s a lot of emphasis on the casebook on the importance of these nuances. It really matters whether we are in a state that recognizes a defense of a reasonably mistaken belief in consent or we’re in a state that doesn’t recognize that particular defense. But when researchers looked into how important the law was to outcomes in, say, a date rape case, what they found was the particular legal nuances didn’t matter at all. What mattered were the backgrounds and experiences of the jurors. What they refer to as cultural cognition. And these subgroups of citizens didn’t break down as expected. It wasn’t that men were far more likely to let the man off in a date rape scenario. It was actually within women that the most interesting break occurred. Women who were older, who were more conservative, who adhere to more traditional gender norms, were far more likely to let the man off in this particular case than women who were liberal and younger. That’s a worry because a lot of what law professors do is emphasize the importance of legal doctrine. It may not be legal doctrine, though, in the criminal law sphere that’s really determining the trajectory of cases.
DAVIES: One of the things we see in court is jurors trying to evaluate whether a witness is testifying truthfully. And they would look for tells, you know, whether the witness appears jittery and whether they shift their eyes a lot or doesn’t make eye contact. And you write that these things – research shows these things really tell us nothing about how truthful someone’s being. In fact, they can mislead us into thinking someone is being truthful when they are not and vice versa. Do the courts encourage jurors to use these, you know, supposedly common sense evaluations of the mannerisms of both defendants and witnesses?
BENFORADO: They absolutely do. And this is one of the real challenges for reform in this area is that it’s not that our legal system just sits back and says nothing about human behavior. It actually weighs in on the side of myth. And so if you’ve ever been a juror and you are called to jury duty, you know that the starting point is this voir dire process where you’re asked a bunch of questions. I was recently called onto jury, although I didn’t make it ultimately onto the jury. And I was asked, you know, these questions of do you have any reason why you would be more or less likely to believe the testimony of a police officer? Now, on the jury pool that I was in, a number of people said yeah, they checked that box. The judge then came up and said, all right, well, let me explain to you what objectivity means. It means that, you know, we all have these feelings, but you’ve just got to put them to the side. Can you do that? Everyone in the jury pool said, yes, of course, judge I can do that. But that’s not how biases work. A lot of them are not subject to introspection and control. And so it’s not just that our legal system is sitting back on the sidelines. It’s actively promoting false notions of human behavior, and that’s really, really damaging…
A PROSECUTOR’S DESIRE FOR REVENGE KILLING IN THE NATION’S MOST DEATH PENALTY-PRONE COUNTY
Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand residents. Yet Caddo juries sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America, writes Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker.
Furthermore, “seventy-seven per cent of those sentenced to death in the past forty years have been black, and nearly half were convicted of killing white victims. A white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person.”
Since 2011, Cado prosecutor Dale Cox has been responsible for a third of the death sentences in Louisiana. And he seeks death from a jury, he says, because he believes that vengeance is necessary.
Last March, a former colleague of Cox’s published a letter in the Shreveport Times apologizing for causing an innocent black man to spend thirty years on death row. “We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death,” he wrote. When a journalist with the paper, Maya Lau, asked Cox for his response, he said that he thought courts should be imposing the death penalty more, not less. “I think we need to kill more people,” he told her. “We’re not considered a society anymore—we’re a jungle.”
Cox does not believe that the death penalty works as a deterrent, but he says that it is justified as revenge. He told me that revenge was a revitalizing force that “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.” He felt that the public’s aversion to the notion had to do with the word itself. “It’s a hard word—it’s like the word ‘hate,’ the word ‘despot,’ the word ‘blood.’ ” He said, “Over time, I have come to the position that revenge is important for society as a whole. We have certain rules that you are expected to abide by, and when you don’t abide by them you have forfeited your right to live among us.”
In her detailed longread story about Cox and his prosecutorial beliefs and style, Aron follows the case of 23-year old Rodricus Crawford whose one-year-old baby, according to Aviv’s reporting, likely died suddenly of pneumonia, not by his father’s hand. By the story’s end, however, rightly or wrongly Crawford has been convicted of murdering his young son and is sentenced to death, with Cox as the prosecutor possessed of formidable Biblical fury, claiming in his closing remarks that Jesus commanded that anyone who killed a child should be killed. Then Cox misquoted Luke 17.2 to prove it.
Here’s how the story opens:
A week after his son turned one, Rodricus Crawford woke up a few minutes before 7 A.M. on the left side of his bed. His son was sleeping on the right side, facing the door. Crawford, who was twenty-three, reached over to wake him up, but the baby didn’t move. He put his ear on his son’s stomach and then began yelling for his mother. “Look at the baby!” he shouted.
Crawford was lanky, with delicate features, high cheekbones, and a patchy goatee. He lived in a small three-bedroom house with his mother, grandmother, uncle, sister, and a younger brother in Mooretown, a neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, bordered by a stretch of factories and next to the airport. His mother, Abbie, a housekeeper at the Quality Inn, rushed into the room and picked up the baby, who was named Roderius, after his father. He looked as if he were asleep, but his forehead felt cool.
Crawford’s uncle called 911, and an operator instructed him to try CPR while they waited for an ambulance. Crawford’s mother and sister took turns pumping the baby’s chest.
“I’m doing it, Ma’am, but he ain’t doing nothing!” Abbie said, out of breath.
The ambulance seemed to be taking too long, so Crawford’s younger brother called 911 on another line. “The baby’s not talking, not breathing, not saying anything,” he said. “Can you get an ambulance?”
They were used to waiting a long time for city services; the alarm could go off at their pastor’s church and ring all night, and the fire department would never come. There was a saying in the neighborhood that the police were never there when you needed them, only when you didn’t. The community was populated almost entirely by black families, many of whom had grown up together. After a few more minutes, Crawford’s brother called 911 again. “We need an ambulance, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s been twenty minutes!”
Not long afterward, another 911 operator called a dispatcher and asked what was happening at the address. “They probably slept on the damn baby,” the dispatcher said. “There’s a hundred folks in that damn house.”
When the ambulance arrived, moments later, Crawford ran out of the house with the baby in his arms. The paramedics put a breathing mask over Roderius’s face, and Crawford thought he saw his son’s eyes open. He tried to climb into the back of the ambulance, but the paramedics shut the doors and told him to stay outside. They couldn’t find a pulse. Roderius’s jaw was stiff and his eyes were milky, a sign that he had been dead for more than an hour. They decided to wait in the ambulance until the police arrived before telling the family….
Read on for the rest of the story that will help you make up your own mind about what you believe happened.