February 20, 2017
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has collected the names of about 300 deputies who have a history of past misconduct — such as domestic violence, theft, bribery and brutality — that could damage their credibility if they testify in court.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell wants to send the names to prosecutors, who can decide whether to add them to an internal database that tracks problem officers in case the information needs to be disclosed to defendants in criminal trials.
But McDonnell’s move has set off a heated battle that pits the privacy rights of officers against efforts by law enforcement agencies to be more transparent.
The union that represents rank-and-file deputies strongly opposes providing the names to prosecutors and has taken the department to court. The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs argues that the disclosure would violate state laws protecting officer personnel files and draw unfair scrutiny on deputies whose mistakes might have happened long ago.
Departments in at least a dozen counties, such as San Francisco and Sacramento, regularly send prosecutors the names of problem officers. Some, including agencies in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura have done so for well over a decade.
The approach has recently earned praise from the state’s Supreme Court and gained new attention at a time of increasing demands for police accountability nationwide.
At stake is an issue fundamental to the criminal justice system: the obligation of prosecutors to hand over evidence that could help the defense, including information that could undermine an officer’s credibility.
Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over exculpatory evidence to defendants. Failing to disclose such evidence can result in faulty convictions.
Jerry Coleman, a special assistant district attorney in San Francisco County who teaches prosecutorial ethics at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said the ripple effects of such a failure can spread well beyond the courtroom.
“They affect not just our relations with police but our relations with victims, and the integrity of the criminal justice system entirely, and the public’s sense of honesty in the proceedings,” he said.
But finding out whether an officer has a history of dishonesty or other misconduct is not easy.
California has some of the strictest protections on law enforcement officer records in the country. Discipline hearings, personnel files and even the names of officers accused in internal affairs investigations are secret. Prosecutors — and defense attorneys — require a special court order to glean even basic information from an officer’s personnel file.
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