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California appeals court declares police indictments by prosecutors unconstitutional

[JURIST] A California appeals court ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that the pioneer law that requires prosecutors rather than secret grand juries to decide whether to indict police officers who use lethal force is unconstitutional. The Third District Court of Appeal [official website] said the law impedes upon the California Constitution of 1979 by limiting a county grand jury's authority [SFGate report]. The law, which followed decisions of closed-door grand juries in other states not to indict officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, took effect in 2016. While the law was supported by civil rights groups and defense attorneys, it was opposed by prosecutors. Justice Kathleen Butz, who delivered the opinion of the court, agrees that criminal grand jury system "lacks transparency" and says that the legislature "is not powerless to remedy the problem it identified" when it attempted to amend the Penal Code. She suggests that it could "take the less cumbersome route of simply reforming the procedural rules of secrecy in such cases, which are not themselves constitutionally derived or necessary to the grand jury's functioning."

Use of force by police officers has been questioned on a national scale. A Minnesota police officer was charged [JURIST report] last week in the shooting death of Philando Castile, the same day the city of Cleveland submitted [JURIST reports] a revised use-of-force policy to the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, which is overseeing an agreement by the city to reform their police department. Cincinnati trial judge Megan Shanahan declared [JURIST report] a mistrial on November 12 after the jury declared it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on murder and manslaughter charges in a case involving the shooting of an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose, by Officer Raymond Tensing in July. In September the DOJ announced [JURIST report] it would investigate the shooting of Terence Crutcher, a unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Tulsa.

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