California Supreme Court

By Bob Egelko
Wednesday, October 29, 2014

At the request of San Francisco’s district attorney and police, the state Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to decide whether prosecutors must examine officers’ confidential personnel files for evidence of misconduct that could help the defense in a criminal trial.

The case, involving charges of domestic violence against a San Francisco man, requires the court to balance competing interests: the privacy of police files and the duty of prosecutors, under a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, to turn over evidence that could strengthen a defendant’s case for acquittal.

The defendant, Daryl Lee Johnson, was charged in November 2012 with hitting a girl in the head in a San Francisco home. After an initial review by the Police Department, prosecutors said information in two officers’ personnel files might help Johnson’s defense, and asked a judge to decide in a closed-door hearing which documents, if any, should be turned over.

The case has been on hold since then and will remain suspended while the court decides whether the prosecutors should have examined the police files themselves.

In San Francisco, a Police Department committee overseen by the police chief examines officers’ files and tells prosecutors if they contain information — whether an officer had a history of fabricating details in a police report, for example — that might assist a defendant. At least a dozen other California counties have similar policies, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office told the court.

That practice, defense lawyers argue, enables police to screen out unfavorable evidence. In August, a state appeals court said the prosecutor should instead inspect the files before seeking review from the trial judge.

Because the district attorney and the police are “a single prosecution team,” prosecutors can examine the records without violating confidentiality, the First District Court of Appeal said in a 3-0 ruling.

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