Court Blocks Sheriff From Revealing Problem Deputies

Court Blocks Sheriff From Revealing Problem Deputies

LOS ANGELES — While the majority of the LAPD is made up of outstanding officers, not all cops have a stellar history in and out of uniform. Recently, the LAPD attempted to increase increase transparency and accountability for officers, but that effort was blocked by the court.

In recent months, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department collected the names of around 300 deputies with a history of misconduct. This includes past incidences of domestic violence, bribery, brutality, and domestic violence. Sheriff Jim McDonnell sought to send the names to prosecutors but an appeals court blocked the proposal. Sheriff McDonnell proposed handing over the list so that prosecutors might determine whether or not to add names to an internal database tracking problem officers. Both agencies believe such information provide relevant in future criminal trials in which officer credibility plays a role.

Transparency Versus Police Privacy Rights

However, not everyone believes such stark transparency is necessary. McDonnell’s move sparked opposition by the local police union. They argue such a disclosure violates state laws protecting the privacy rights of officers. The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs additionally says it draws undue scrutiny on deputies who made mistakes early in the career but have since held a stellar record.

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled in February in favor of Sheriff McDonnell. Chalfant said McDonnell’s department could give the D.A.’s office the names of problem officers in situations wherein there was a pending case for which a listed officer might testify.

But when ALADS contested that ruling, a two-judge appellate court panel sided with them in March. The appeals court granted the union’s request to put a temporary hold on the transmission of any names between the Sheriff’s department and the D.A. This includes officers relevant in pending cases.

An Escalating Court Battle is Now Underway

It is a legal battle that is being closely watched by every California law enforcement agency. Particularly important as each considers whether they should lean towards officer privacy or public transparency. The latter being an approach garnering greater national traction with increasing public demands for police accountability.

One concern those on both sides have is how the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland will play out here. Under that ruling, prosecutors are obligated to hand over any exculpatory evidence to defendants. A failure to disclose such may result in a faulty conviction. Faulty convictions are overturnable.

Thus, should an officer’s history of dishonesty or other misconduct become available to the prosecutors, it may likely also become available to defense attorneys and eventually the public.

Currently, California holds some of the nation’s strictest protections on law enforcement officer records and privacy. Personnel files, discipline hearings, and internal affair investigations are all kept private. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys must acquire a special court order for even the most basic of officer information.

The current case marks one of the largest attempts to break down that wall of protection, at least against those officers with a history of misconduct. Yet, the final decision may take years to resolve.

“It would not surprise me if this case eventually winds up in the California Supreme Court,” said the Sheriff’s Department’s lawyer, Geoffrey Sheldon.