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Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Police Officers in Jim McDonnell Case

In early July, California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the names of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies who’ve falsified records, lied, stolen, and committed other types of “moral” misconduct remain confidential and cannot be given to prosecutors—even in pending criminal cases in which the officers are considered potential witnesses. The targeted group represents about 3% of the department’s roughly 9,100 deputies.

The ruling marks an end to the fight over a secret list—compiled by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell—of 300 deputies whose history of misconduct could damage their credibility in the even they are called to testify in criminal cases. Last fall, the union sued the department the L.A. County sheriff’s attempt to disclose the names to the district attorney’s office, arguing that revealing the names to prosecutors—even in pending cases—would violate state peace officer confidentiality laws and invite biased scrutiny of deputies whose mistakes might have occurred a long time ago.

California is known to have some of the strictest protections on law enforcement officer records in the United States. Officers involved in misconduct or internal affair investigations are often kept secret.

How This Ruling Affects the Brady Motion

Sheriff McDonnell’s attempt to reveal the names of specific deputies to prosecutors wasn’t about charging these officers with the crimes, but rather highlighting the vulnerability of these officers’ credibility if they were to ever testify in court. Prosecutors would potentially need to disclose these names to defense attorneys.

According to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors are required to alert defendants to any evidence which could benefit the defense. Failure to do so could result in wrongful conviction. Evidence often entails information that could undermine an officer’s credibility.

However, there are at least a dozen counties in California that that practice what McDonnell was trying to do. For more than a decade, departments such as Santa Barbara and Ventura have been providing prosecutors with names of officers involved in some form of misconduct.

Alas, this most recent decision could start to change that. While the ruling only involves the Sheriff’s Department, experts say it could cause police unions throughout the state to refuse a prosecutor’s request to identify dubious officers who might be called as witnesses.

For more information, contact our Ventura DUI attorney at The Law Offices of Robert F. Sommers today.