California Lawmakers Approve District Attorney Recusal Law

Looking to weed out conflict of interest, lawmakers approved legislation barring prosecutors who accept law enforcement campaign donations from trying officers for bad shootings and other cases of misconduct.

Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in downtown LA. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California district attorneys whose campaigns were funded by police unions would have to recuse themselves from investigations of law enforcement officers under legislation approved Wednesday by lawmakers.

Supporters say the “first-of-its-kind” bill will prevent conflicts of interest and restore public faith that bad officers will be brought to justice.

Sponsors hope the proposal will aid the state and nation’s quest to remove bias and systemic racism from the criminal justice system. By a 24-8 party-line vote, state Senate Democrats advanced the reform over to the Assembly.

“Elected prosecutors that accept financial contributions from law enforcement associations cannot escape the conflict of interest that exists when they inevitably lead investigations into the members of those organizations,” claimed Cristine Soto Deberry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California. “Even where police act appropriately and within the confines of the law, that conflict undermines trust and casts a shadow of uncertainty over decisions not to charge officers in critical incidents.”

Under Senate Bill 710, district attorneys investigating or charging a peace officer with a crime that have accepted money from the officer’s union would have to pass on the case. In the event both the DA and state Attorney General accepted banned law enforcement donations during their campaigns, a special prosecutor would then take over.

The campaign donation prohibition pertains to formal “member organizations or associations” that lobby for law enforcement or represent them in legal matters, including statewide and local organizations like the California Police Chiefs Association or the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.  

While the proponents tout SB 710 as a common-sense way to infuse fairness and impartiality into prosecutors’ decision making process, critics are casting it as an unfair First Amendment violation that singles out prosecutors.

The district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles counties have signed up in support, but their counterparts are largely fighting the reform.

Opponents, namely the California District Attorneys Association, point to a 1980 California Supreme Court decision — Woodland Hills Residents Association Inc. v. City Council of Los Angeles — in which the court ruled city council members could vote on land development matters even if they had taken donations from the subject business.

During a committee hearing prior to Wednesday’s vote, the DA association pushed back on the notion that prosecutors can’t investigate fatal police shootings and other high profile instances without being influenced by past political support.  

“This bill singles out DAs among all elected officials as being incapable of reconciling their ethical duties with having received political support,” Larry Morse testified on behalf of the DA association. “Why would DAs be held to a different standard than members of the California Legislature, many of whom routinely solicit significant campaign contributions from a vast array of special interest groups that have business in the Legislature?”

Morse added that SB 710 is certain to be challenged if eventually signed into law and argued it would add significant workload pressures to the Department of Justice due to the likely flood of investigations flagged for conflict of interest.

Despite the DAs finger-pointing, not a single Democratic senator voted against SB 710 on Wednesday.

Along with the Prosecutors Alliance of California, the list of supporters includes the California Public Defenders Association and the Drug Policy Alliance.

The bill’s author defended the reform on the Senate floor, saying that communities are “rightfully critical of the relationship” between prosecutors and local law enforcement agencies.

“Officers are rarely charged for serious crimes and are more rarely convicted,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena. “This bill does not prevent any officer from receiving a fair and impartial trial nor prevents law enforcement unions from donating to candidates. It only requires those district attorneys to recuse themselves from that criminal case.”

Meanwhile, the state Senate on Wednesday also approved legislation that would further open access to police personnel records to the media and public.

Lawmakers in 2018 approved landmark police transparency legislation that expanded access to some officers’ personnel records and required timely release of recordings of police shootings. The idea was to shine light on officer misconduct cases involving shootings, sexual misconduct and falsified evidence.

Senate Bill 16 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley, builds on the previous iterations by expanding the list to unlawful arrests, searches or used excessive force. Approved in overwhelming bipartisan fashion, the proposal advances to the Assembly.

“Bad behavior goes unchecked when police operate in secret,” Skinner said in a statement. “SB 16 provides an essential tool to restore public trust.”

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