The author of California’s landmark police transparency law is urging district attorneys across the state to obtain misconduct records on their own to flag problem officers who testify in criminal court.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said prosecutors should take advantage of the new law and request police disciplinary files instead of relying on the efforts of defense attorneys and journalists to uncover officers with histories of misconduct.
Doing so would help prosecutors identify officers with credibility issues that could potentially jeopardize criminal cases and convictions, Skinner said in an opinion piece published Sunday.
“This would allow them to begin proactively rooting out police misconduct that may have tainted previous cases, while also helping them to fulfill their constitutional obligation to disclose evidence favorable to the defense in current and future cases,” Skinner wrote.
Last year, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1421, which requires law enforcement departments to publicly disclose records of internal investigations into police shootings, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers. The law took effect Jan. 1.
Robert Gammon, Skinner’s communications director, said the senator’s office is not aware of any prosecutors in the state filing such requests.
Mark Zahner, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Assn., said “an overriding tenet of all prosecutors is to be as transparent as possible no matter the mechanism leading to discovering the truth.” Still, he said, it “remains to be seen” how SB 1421 will fit into the way prosecutors seek out information about police misconduct.
Skinner pointed to a recent Times story as an example of the effect police misconduct records can have once made public.
Published in September, the report detailed how an L.A. County sheriff’s detective testified in numerous cases without jurors, judges or defense attorneys knowing he had previously been suspended for dishonesty after his department determined that he punched a suspect several times and lied about it.
That detective, Daniel Morris, testified in five murder trials since becoming a homicide detective, but defense attorneys in those cases said they were never informed about his previous misconduct.
By law, prosecutors are required to tell criminal defendants about evidence that would damage the credibility of law enforcement witnesses. Failure to do so can result in convictions being overturned, even if prosecutors did not know about the information.
A district attorney’s spokeswoman told The Times that none of the prosecutors in those trials knew about Morris’ discipline. Since The Times shared a copy of the disciplinary letter, the office has sent notifications about the suspension to defense lawyers in more than 60 criminal cases, including some that resulted in convictions.
“It was only after reporters obtained those documents via an SB 1421 request and brought them to the attention of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office that prosecutors informed defense lawyers that their cases may have been tainted by a dishonest officer,” Skinner wrote.
Morris has been a lead detective in some of the department’s highest-profile investigations, including the murder case against a man accused of carrying out a series of shootings in Malibu Creek State Park and the manslaughter case against a fellow deputy charged in an on-duty shooting. Morris did not respond to requests for comment. He has not testified in those cases, which are ongoing.
A Los Angeles County district attorney’s spokeswoman did not say on Monday whether the office has filed any public records requests for documents about Morris or other law enforcement officers in the county. But she said prosecutors are working with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the county’s 44 municipal police departments to develop a “streamlined mechanism” so they can receive SB 1421 information.
“We absolutely recognize our responsibility under SB 1421 and are proactively working with law enforcement to get that information from them,” Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement.
The Sheriff’s Department previously declined to answer questions about Morris’ discipline or his role as a homicide detective, citing “personnel file privacy issues.”
One of Morris’ former supervisors in the department’s detective division praised him as a “skilled, humble homicide investigator.”
However, Morris’ discipline landed him on the Sheriff’s Department’s secret list of about 300 deputies with histories of dishonesty and other misconduct that could hurt their credibility in court, according to a 2014 version of the list reviewed by The Times. The list was at the center of a statewide legal battle over whether law enforcement agencies could share the names on such rosters with prosecutors.
In August, the state Supreme Court ruled they could, paving the way for new disclosures to prosecutors about law enforcement witnesses like Morris.
The Times is part of a collaboration of 40 news organizations called the California Reporting Project that is gathering and analyzing records released under SB 1421.
Morris’ 2005 disciplinary letter, disclosed under the new law, shows the Sheriff’s Department concluded that he made false statements to his supervisors and was less than forthright with internal investigators.
Morris was given a 30-day suspension — the department’s most severe discipline short of demotion or firing — but had to serve only 15 days unless he reoffended within a year, according to the letter.
Since then, he has been listed by the district attorney as a potential witness in nearly 180 criminal cases. It’s unclear how many times he testified.
Some defense attorneys said Morris’ history of dishonesty was a crucial piece of information that should have been disclosed by prosecutors. There could be repercussions for allowing Morris to investigate and testify on criminal cases, Skinner said.
“In Los Angeles, dozens of criminal cases may now have been tarnished by a single dishonest officer,” she said. “This should be of immediate concern to our elected district attorneys, whose duty is to seek justice, not just convictions. Like it or not, they will eventually be forced to address any questionable convictions that may emerge as a result of these disclosures.”