State Senate OKs bill barring grand juries in police deadly force cases

State Senate OKs bill barring grand juries in police deadly force cases
State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell listens to speakers during a hearing by the state and federal legislators on women and inequality on October 22, 2014. Mitchell's bill prohibiting the use of grand juries in cases of police-involved deaths passed the Senate on Thursday. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

The state Senate on Thursday approved a measure that would prohibit grand juries from weighing in on cases of deadly shootings or excessive force by police.

Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said her bill aims to "increase confidence of Californians in the judicial process," adding the current process is "a non-transparent process that is really antiquated and it calls into question whether the grand jury system is relevant anymore."

The system been under increased scrutiny in recent months after grand juries declined to pursue charges in high-profile police killings in Staten Island, N.Y. and Ferguson, Mo. In March, a federal investigation into the Ferguson shooting largely agreed with the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the slaying of Michael Brown.  

Mitchell, in an interview, cited several concerns about grand juries, including "their lack of transparency, the lack of opposing counsel, [and] no judge present."

Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties do not use grand juries when an officer's actions may be the cause of a person's death.

"That's a sound policy that should be applied across the state," Mitchell said.

The California District Attorneys Assn. opposes the bill, arguing the state's system already has controls for fairness in place.

Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber defended grand juries as "a very long-established and respected process."

He opposed Mitchell's measure, which is among a series of bills dealing with police use of force that lawmakers are considering this year.

"There is a deluge at this time of legislation that's inarguably going to put more handcuffs on law enforcement," Nielsen said.

Mitchell's bill, SB 227, passed on a 23-12 vote. It now heads to the Assembly.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.