California will no longer use grand juries in criminal cases where police stand accused of using excessive or deadly force. Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a ban on grand juries deliberating on such cases on Tuesday following a nationwide debate over the past year about the fairness and impartiality of grand juries in cases of police misconduct. California is the first state to ban grand jury involvement in cases where police used lethal force.
Grand juries in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island declined to indict the police officers involved, eroding confidence in the grand jury system, particularly in communities of color. Critics of the use of grand juries in such cases say prosecutors often refer cases involving police officers to a grand jury as cover, rather than potentially compromising their relationships with law enforcement. Grand juries are made up of citizens who are presented evidence in secret and then decide whether to bring charges. “No judges or defense attorneys participate in the grand jury process, and in California, transcripts of the hearings are sealed unless someone is indicted or a judge grants permission for their release,” the San Jose Mercury-News notes. “The grand jury ban accomplishes officially what many California district attorneys, including in Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties, are doing already—deciding themselves whether to bring criminal charges against police officers rather than presenting evidence in a closed hearing to a grand jury and letting the panel decide.”
“The measure was opposed by law enforcement groups, including the California Assn. of District Attorneys, which argued the grand jury system was a useful prosecutorial tool,” according to the Los Angeles Times.