The California State Senate, passed Thursday, a bill prohibiting grand jury investigations of police shootings and cases where an individual dies from excessive force during an arrest.
Comprised of citizens who retain ultimate decision making authority, a grand jury is a body empowered to conduct official proceedings to investigate potential criminal conduct in order to determine whether criminal charges should be brought.
After grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict white police officers who had killed unarmed black men, the system came under fire sparking protests around the country.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who introduced Senate Bill 227, argued that the lack of transparency and oversight in grand jury deliberations, which do not involve judges, defense attorneys or cross-examination of witnesses, and keep jurors names anonymous, do not serve the public.
“The use of the criminal grand jury has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise the nature of our justice system,” Mitchell said.
The bill reads:
The grand jury may inquire into all public offenses committed or triable within the county and present them to the court by indictment. Except as provided in Section 918, the grand jury shall not inquire into an offense that involves a shooting or use of excessive force by a peace officer described in Section 830.1, subdivision (a) of Section 830.2, or Section 830.39, that led to the death of a person being detained or arrested by the peace officer pursuant to Section 836.
By banning the use of grand juries, the decision to prosecute officers would rest solely with local district attorneys, individuals Mitchell contends provide much more accountability because they are elected.
“The general public would then have an opportunity for recourse [at the next election,]” Mitchell said, whereas “referral to a grand jury can be a way to avoid having fingerprints [on a case.]”
The measure, which received push-back from lawmakers, was ultimately approved by the California Senate via a 23-12 vote, with all of the “yes” votes coming from Democrats.
Critics have asserted the measure will trample due process.
“This bill seems like a bad idea to me,” said Law Professor John Myers. “The grand jury is an ancient institution that is designed … its whole purpose to protect the innocent against the onslaught of government.”
Myers said the bill could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, depriving officers of the grand jury proceedings that private citizens would still be entitled to.
“The grand jury has always been a secret proceeding,” Myers said. “It’s meant to be that way, so reporters, politicians and the public cannot influence the deliberations of the grand juror.
The bill will now travel to the State Assembly for approval there, before heading to the governors desk.