District attorney revises policy on police misconduct disclosure
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey announced Tuesday that she has issued new policies on when to disclose information about police officer misconduct and other evidence in criminal cases to defense attorneys.
The move drew praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which, along with other civil rights lawyers, sued the county last year accusing prosecutors of improperly withholding key evidence from defendants.
The new directives, issued last week, make it clear that prosecutors must disclose all evidence favorable to the defense and that they cannot rely solely on the contents of a district attorney’s database that tracks police misconduct when they determine what evidence needs to be turned over.
ACLU attorneys said they dropped their lawsuit earlier this year after Lacey’s office gave assurances that the policies would be revised. Lacey took office in December, replacing retired Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, described the new policies as a major improvement that more accurately explains the legal obligations of prosecutors to disclose evidence to the defense.
“We’re very appreciative of Ms. Lacey and her leadership and commitment to the office’s obligation to ensure fair trials,” Villagra said.
District attorney’s officials downplayed the significance of the changes, saying the new policies were clarifications designed to accurately reflect the office’s training and legal manuals as well as the practices already being followed by prosecutors.
“If there was any confusion about it at all ... we wanted to eliminate that confusion,” said Assistant Dist. Atty. Pamela Booth, who oversees the office’s administration. “We want our prosecutors to live up to the highest ethical standards.”
ACLU’s lawsuit alleged that the district attorney’s office violated the rights of defendants by preventing prosecutors from disclosing information about law enforcement misconduct without “clear and convincing evidence” that the information is true. That is a higher burden than the “preponderance of evidence” standard required for police departments to discipline or fire officers.
The suit also claimed that the district attorney’s office improperly withheld evidence during ongoing investigations into law enforcement officers, and that it only required prosecutors to turn over evidence if they believed it would probably affect the outcome of the case.
The district attorney’s new directives explicitly follows California law. It says that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to defendants and that information appearing to help a defendant should not be withheld simply because the prosecutor believes it might not affect the outcome of the case.
The new policies also tell prosecutors that information on pending police misconduct investigations can, in some cases, be put into the office’s database.
Booth said the office has never prevented prosecutors from fulfilling their legal requirements to disclose information to the defense. She said that adding information about pending investigations to the police misconduct database is also nothing new, even though the previous policy appeared to prohibit it.
Despite objections from some civil rights attorneys, Booth said the office continues to use the “clear and convincing evidence” standard for including officers in its misconduct database, known as the Brady Alert System.
Last year’s lawsuit filed by the ACLU, civil rights attorneys and legal scholars also accused the Sheriff’s Department of failing to keep inmate complaints in the personnel files of the deputies accused of misconduct, requiring officials to hand-search thousands of documents to find complaints against specific jailers.
The ACLU dropped that part of the lawsuit last year after sheriff’s officials announced the department had implemented a new system for tracking inmate complaints by deputy name and had also manually classified inmate complaints for the last five years.
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