On August 11, 2015, California became the first state to ban grand juries from deciding whether police officers should be criminally charged for use of force resulting in death of a person being detained or arrested.
SB 227 was introduced into the California State Senate by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to counteract the increasing distrust of the judicial process. Cynicism about the fairness of the judicial process was recently heightened by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, which did not indict officers who killed unarmed citizens.
A grand jury scrutinizes an incident and decides to indict (returning a “true bill”) or not indict (returning a “no bill”) based on the evidence presented to it. Typically, their vote need not be unanimous and their standard of proof for indictment turns on probable cause rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt because indictment simply means that a person is charged. Their proceedings are secret to protect them and encourage them to deliberate freely. While grand juries are not the only instrument for indictment, they are widely used by district attorneys throughout the United States.
One problem with the innately secret grand jury process is the distrust it can engender in particularly notorious cases. All eyes were on the Ferguson, Missouri cases, for example, because a police officer repeatedly shot an unarmed black teenager, killing him in the street. After hearing hours of testimony, reading thousands of pages and deliberating, the Ferguson grand jury returned a “no bill,” deciding that the officer acted within the law.
As Mitchell observes, the mystery of the grand jury process, in which evidence is secretly present to a panel of civilians who then secretly deliberate about its criminality, undermines faith in the judicial system: “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”
Elimination of the grand jury from these situations leaves the decisions of whether or not to indict to district attorneys and judges.
SB 227, which takes effect in 2016, amends §§ 917 and 919 of California’s Penal Code. The full text can be accessed here: Read SB 227
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