Court Strikes Law That Limited Grand Juries in Fatal Police Shooting Cases

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 19, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A California appeals court threw out the state legislature's law to divest grand juries of their power to issue indictments in fatal police shootings, saying that the law would require a constitutional amendment to be valid.

California enacted the law in response to grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York. Calling for transparency in criminal proceedings, the state legislature passed the law taking away grand juries' indictment power in such officer-involved shootings and leaving the decision to file charges solely with prosecutors.

The Law Is Unconstitutional

While lauding the legislature's efforts to make criminal proceedings transparent, the Third District Court of Appeal said the law was unconstitutional. Drafted to be effective last year, the law was the first of its kind in the nation.

"We conclude the legislative object, however salutary, cannot be accomplished in this manner; it intrudes on the constitutional grant of authority to the criminal grand jury to issue an indictment after inquiry, which taken to its logical conclusion would allow the Legislature by statute to abrogate indictments entirely for all classes of offenses," the court said.

One Never Got Away

The case came to the appeals court after El Dorado County District Attorney called for a criminal grand jury to investigate a peace officer's fatal shooting of a suspect in 2015. The officer was responding to a domestic violence call, and shot the suspect after he tried to climb through a bathroom window.

The district attorney waited to convene the grand jury until 2016 specifically to challenge the new law. On the motions from the officers' union, the trial court dismissed the criminal grand jury. The district attorney then filed a petition with the appellate court for a writ of mandate to overturn the trial court's orders.

The appeals court considered briefs from district attorneys throughout the state, including Riverside, Sacramento, Ventura, and Yolo counties, and the California District Attorneys Association. The court said the facts were not disputed, and it did not seem to have trouble reaching a decision.

Constitutional Authority

Noting that the the state constitution vested grand juries with the power to indict in 1879, the court said the legislature has the authority to regulate statutory powers of grand juries but not constitutional powers. The judges said the legislature "cannot act to defeat or materially impair the inherent constitutional power of another entity."

The court said the legislature may remedy the problem of transparency in other ways. It could, for example, propose a constitutional amendment to voters to remove the grand jury's power to indict.

"It could also take the less cumbersome route of simply reforming the procedural rules of secrecy in such cases," the court said.

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