California Bill Seeks DA Independence From Police Union Money

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

(CN) — Under a California bill announced Thursday, elected district attorneys in the state will be required to recuse themselves from investigating and prosecuting excessive force and fatal shootings by police when the prosecutor has taken campaign contributions from the officer’s labor union or association.

The bill by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, says a prosecutorial conflict of interest occurs when an elected district attorney solicits or has accepted a financial contribution to their political campaign from law enforcement groups or their labor unions.

Once a district attorney recuses themselves, the California Attorney General would be required to take over both the criminal investigation and any prosecutorial action.

If the Attorney General’s prosecutorial work is also clouded by police union money, the bill requires that a special prosecutor be appointed to handle the matter, according to a draft version of the bill shared with Courthouse News.

Oakland Police Officers Association president Barry Donelan criticized the draft bill, saying in an emailed statement it will restrict officers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

“The difference between prohibiting contributions from police unions and forcing DA’s who have taken contributions from police unions to recuse themselves, is a very fine line and a very slippery slope,” Donelan said. “What’s next? Should we force local school board members to recuse themselves from decisions involving a teacher because the teacher’s union contributed to that school board member’s campaign?”

Bonta announced the bill in a virtual presentation Thursday with former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and current District Attorneys Chesa Boudin of San Francisco, Diana Becton of Contra Costa County and Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin County.

The former and current prosecutors are part of the lobbying group Prosecutors Alliance of California which says it works to counter the influence of law enforcement unions in state policymaking and elections.

Bonta said he plans to introduce the bill when the next legislative session begins on Dec. 7.

If signed into law, the current version of the bill contains no penalties for DA’s who refuse to step aside when police union contributions create a conflict of interest.

Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance, told reporters the California State Bar could review a DA’s decision to determine whether non-recusal violates state ethics rules.

“It’s not a criminal violation but what we’re trying to do is set some professional standards,” DeBerry said.

Bonta told reporters he crafted the bill in the wake of the most recent nationwide uprising against police violence following the murders of Black people such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“We saw people express frustration and anger with law enforcement,” Bonta said of the nationwide protests. 

For decades, police killings have seldom resulted in criminal charges or convictions for officers or have resulted in lesser charges by prosecutors. 

Communities’ trust in police and district attorneys is further eroded when investigations of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people appear to lack a thorough accounting of all evidence.

The bill says the recurrent dynamic highlights the issue of campaign contributions to DA’s who investigate an officer whose legal fees are covered by the same prosecutor’s financial donor.

“There is, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest, and in many instances, an actual conflict of interest when the same district attorney or local prosecutor who has accepted campaign contributions from law enforcement unions is tasked with making decisions about whether and how to charge police officers who are members of those unions,” the draft of the bill says.

Bonta said residents should feel confident their district attorneys will be “even-handed” when investigating abuse or deadly force by police.

“It’s critical that the public be able to trust prosecutors,” Bonta said. 

Bonta said he will no longer take contributions from police unions or associations and any received for his current election campaign will be donated to local “social justice” groups. 

In Los Angeles County, law enforcement unions spend an average of $3 million a year in state and local elections and account for more than $60 million in political contributions in the last two decades, according to the bill.

Current Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey has received $3.5 million for her reelection bid from law enforcement unions across the Golden State, according to an LA Times report. 

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents nearly 10,000 LA cops, raised at least $1.2 million of those donations as of Sep. 24, according to the report.

Last month, Lacey — who directs the largest county prosecutorial agency in the country — recused herself from investigating a fatal police shooting involving the daughter of LAPPL director Jamie McBride.

In an emailed statement, the LAPPL board of directors called the Prosecutors Alliance a “dark money” group and said it’s “laughable” Bonta is concerned about conflicts of interest.

“We wonder if he’s trying to restrict the free speech of union members to attract for his own benefit the millions of dollars in special interest money that has rushed into California to influence legislators who are systematically weakening public safety in our neighborhoods,” the statement said. “There’s a term for this, it’s called hypocrisy.” 

Gascón forced Lacey into a runoff on Nov. 3 and has said his campaign is an indictment of her repeated decision over her tenure to decline criminal charges in most fatal police shooting cases.

Gascón told reporters Thursday he will, if elected, reopen at least four criminal investigations of fatal police shootings that Lacey previously reviewed and declined to prosecute.

Boudin, who was elected in 2019 on a promise to enact sweeping reforms of the criminal legal system, said he supports the bill because it will promote prosecutorial independence. 

“At the end of the day, this is a common sense reform and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Boudin said. 

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