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Shouldn’t Prosecutors Know Who The ‘Problem’ Cops Are?

Aug 18, 2017 by Mike McKneely in Criminal Defense

Most police officers join the force for noble reasons, to protect individuals and their communities, and they are committed to never abusing their positions. They take their duty to serve and protect seriously. However, it is becoming all too apparent that not every officer is this upstanding. There are cops who discriminate, harass, lie, and fail to defend the people who are most at risk for violence and harm. In many situations, these officers are responsible for bringing inappropriate and baseless charges against people who have done nothing wrong, and now a California court has made it harder to identify them.

If you were wrongly charged with a crime by an unethical officer, contact a Fresno criminal defense attorney from Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer at (559) 443-7442.

The Connection Between Prosecutors and the Police

Over time, prosecutors often begin to learn who the “problem” cops are. They may notice that certain cops tend to arrest an inordinately high number of men and women of color. They may even see similar types of observations and evidence from certain officers. Police reports from these cops begin to look like they were all written from a “template” designed to conceal the officer’s illegal conduct. But even prosecutors are not automatically able to access all of the information that would help them identify these officers and determine whether or not bringing charges against someone is truly appropriate. They also lack the information they may need to anticipate when defense attorneys will attack an officer’s credibility during trial. Much of that evidence lies with the police force itself, and recently, California’s Second District Court of Appeal decided police departments do not have to provide information regarding officer’s previous misconduct to prosecutors.

A Legal Victory for the Police

Last year, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell attempted to disclose the names of officers he knew had histories of misconduct to the local district attorney’s office. It would only impact officers who had internally been found guilty of some offense that amounted to moral turpitude. The purpose of the list was not to bring charges against officers, but instead to help prosecutors determine which officers’ credibility may be attacked in the future.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which is the union for deputies, sued the police department to stop this from happening. It argued that giving prosecutors police officers’ names would violate California law. The state has strict confidentiality protections for cops, which make disciplinary hearings, names of cops investigated by Internal Affairs, and personnel files off limits. The union also argued that giving prosecutors names would unfairly draw scrutiny toward deputies for actions that could have occurred years ago.

A Superior Court judge agreed that providing a complete list of names would violate state law. Though, the department could give prosecutors the names of problem deputies when it was related to a pending case. The union filed a request with the Court of Appeal to put a temporary hold on transmitting the list while it appealed the decision, which was granted. Ultimately, the Court of Appeal agreed that the law enforcement officers’ names, personnel files, and the information contained in those files is confidential.

Why is the List a Big Deal?

Whether theses names can be released is a major concern because of Brady v. Maryland. The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady required prosecutors to alert defendants to any evidence that could aid their defense. This means if prosecutors know an officer involved in a defendant’s case has a history of misconduct, that prosecutor must tell the defendant’s lawyer. This would then enable the defendant’s defense attorneys to appropriately question the cop’s credibility and actions in the current case.

Also, this decision could change how many police departments across the state already operate. What Sheriff McDonnell attempted to do was not unique. Many departments provide prosecutors with this kind of information, especially when these problem officers could be called as witnesses. With this new decision, police unions may fight back against departments doing just that.

A Controversial Outcome

Many organizations and citizens felt the appellate court’s decision was a blow for law enforcement transparency. Prosecutors should have the information they need to determine whether an officer’s conduct in previous arrests or trials will affect their current case, including whether they can support the charges against the defendant or successfully prove guilt at trial.

However, there is still hope for prosecutors and defense attorneys. The court left some room for the disclosure of an officer’s name and history, including findings of misconduct, through a court order. Sheriff McDonnell has said he will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

Do You Need Legal Advice?

If you are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced Fresno criminal defense attorney from Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer at (559) 443-7442 right away. We will thoroughly review your situation to determine the evidence against you and the evidence in your favor.

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