Judges Must Find Dirt on Cop Witnesses in CA

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Prosecutors aren’t required to look through police officers’ personnel files to find evidence that may exonerate a defendant in a criminal case, the California Supreme Court ruled.
     But the Golden State’s high court noted that both criminal defendants and the prosecution can ask the trial judge to review files of officers in the case and decide whether any information must be disclosed.
     Monday’s ruling stems from a 2012 San Francisco case in which Daryl Lee Johnson was charged with hitting an underage girl in the head.
     After prosecutors learned from police that the personnel files of two police officers – potentially important witnesses in the case – might contain information that should be disclosed to the defense, they asked a judge to decide in a closed-door hearing which documents should be given to Johnson’s lawyers.
     In San Francisco and about a dozen other California counties – including nearby Alameda and Santa Clara counties – a police department committee reviews confidential police files and tells prosecutors if they contain information, such as an officer’s history of false statements or excessive force, which could be helpful in a defendant’s case.
     Such information – known as Brady material – is required to be turned over to the defense pursuant to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland.
     A California superior court judge and state appeals court agreed with Johnson’s attorneys that the prosecutors themselves should be required to review files to determine if there is evidence relevant to the case.
     But the state’s high court overturned the appellate ruling after determining that prosecutors’ access to police personnel files – which can contain sensitive or confidential material including marital status and health records – was unauthorized and unnecessary, and could jeopardize officers’ privacy.
     The prosecution “does not have unfettered access to confidential personnel records of police officers who are potential witnesses in criminal cases” and must follow the same procedures as criminal defendants to get the information, Justice Ming Chin wrote in the court’s unanimous decision.
     Treating officers “as the subject of an investigation whenever they become a witness in a criminal case, thus giving the prosecutor routine access to their confidential personnel records, would not protect their privacy interests ‘to the fullest extent possible,'” Chin wrote.
     The high court said that the San Francisco has “laudably established procedures” to streamline the Brady process and that prosecutors must notify defendants about any potentially helpful information they get from the police review committee.
     Chin noted that the defense “is not required simply to trust the prosecution or police department but may always investigate for itself,” adding that they can seek the information at least as well as the prosecution can.
     The court remained mum on whether counties that do not have committees and procedures in place like in San Francisco are required to establish them.
     Neither the San Francisco public defender’s office nor the city attorney’s office immediately responded to a request for comment.

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