CA puts prosecutors on notice to seek justice rather than high conviction rates
SACRAMENTO, CA – This weekend, Governor Brown took a forceful stance on criminal justice reform signing a number of legislative bills to strengthen accountability and oversight. Among the bills signed into law was Assembly Bill 1238, authored by Shirley Weber (D-San Diego). This historic bill, the first in the nation, addresses the “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct in California.
AB 1328, sponsored by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ), a statewide association of criminal defense attorneys, was the second attempt at addressing a growing epidemic of bad-acting prosecutors who withhold key evidence from the defense; ignoring their constitutional and ethical obligations. In many cases, these ethical lapses have led to persons being wrongfully convicted and subsequently led to long, costly appeals to our state’s court system.
“As public servants, we cannot sit back and allow this epidemic to grow on our watch. This is a modest, first step in deterring these few bad actors who place high conviction rates above justice” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber.
AB 1328, which will take effect January 1, 2016, requires a judge to report a prosecutor to the State Bar of California when there is a finding of an intentional withholding of evidence that could prove a defendant’s innocence. In addition, under this new law, the court will have the discretion to disqualify an individual prosecutor from the underlying case if such a violation is found. Furthermore, a court may disqualify an entire prosecutor’s office if the court finds a systemic, pattern and practice of withholding evidence in the office.
Recently, 9th Circuit Justice Alex Kozinski made high profile comments about what he describes as a growing epidemic in our country because “they [prosecutors] have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” said Kozinski. Justice Kozinski has frequently pointed to judges as sitting in a key position to stem the occurrence of prosecutorial misconduct.
A judge in Orange County, CA, recently disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney’s office, over 250 individual prosecutors, from a case after finding years of repeated failure to turn over exculpatory evidence and improper usage of jailhouse informants. The judge’s decision is being appealed by the state Attorney General’s office.
“This is a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind law that will put bad-apple prosecutors on notice,” said Ignacio Hernandez, CACJ’s Legislative Director. “This new law makes it crystal clear that judges are empowered to act when a prosecutor chooses to break the law. Our criminal justice system is compromised whenever public officials choose to win at all costs instead of playing by the rules.”