Earlier this year, San Fernando Valley Assemblywoman Patty Lopez introduced a bill which was meant to deter law enforcement from using questionable and often illegal tactics to ensure convictions.
The bill, AB 1909, which has recently been enacted by the State of California, upgrades intentionally tampering with or withholding evidence that might exonerate defendants, from misdemeanor to felony. This means that a DA or law enforcement officer who violates a defendant’s civil rights in this manner could actually go to prison.
According to the legislation’s text, “This bill [makes] it a felony punishable by imprisonment for 16 months or 2 or 3 years for a prosecuting attorney to intentionally and in bad faith alter, modify, or withhold any physical matter, digital image, video recording, or relevant exculpatory material or information, knowing that it is relevant and material to the outcome of the case, with the specific intent that the physical matter, digital image, video recording, or relevant exculpatory material or information will be concealed or destroyed, or fraudulently represented as the original evidence upon a trial, proceeding, or inquiry.”
Lopez introduced the bill following the scandalous case of Scott Dekraai, who was charged in connection with the Seal Beach mass murder.
A judge found that two sheriff’s deputies involved in Dekraai’s case had lied and failed to provide important evidence. As a result, Dekraai risked being sentenced to death. The investigation also exposed the secret jailhouse informant program, which the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department had been operating for years.
Unfortunately, these secret snitch programs are not the exception but the norm in our legal system, and they routinely furnish false testimonies to convict innocent people.
Inspired by the outrageous details of Dekraai’s case, Assemblywoman Lopez, a frequent advocate for minority causes, moved forward with her initiative, stating that the “accountability for California’s prosecutors is critical to ensuring that justice in our courts is truly served.”
I agree with Lopez that prosecutorial misconduct is an extremely serious offense, because the criminal justice system’s decisions can alter the course of people´s lives forever. AB 1909 will hopefully increase the system’s transparency, and the exposure of the jailhouse informer program is going to make it more difficult for law enforcement to resort to such unlawful tactics.
“Those individuals who are willing to win a case at all costs, who abuse their power as officers of the court, must answer for their actions,” López commented upon receiving news that the bill had been finally enacted.
The measure will undoubtedly cause unethical prosecutors to watch their actions, because now the state will be watching them more closely. Thanks to the media attention received by recent scandalous cases of prosecutorial misconduct in California, public opinion will also be watching.
It’s no secret that the corrupt system of law enforcement in California is in dire need of reform. Defendants are often helpless before a massive bureaucratic apparatus that seldom shies away from breaking the law, in its quest for putting more of them in jail, and consistently denies them a fair chance at proving their innocence.
AB 1909 does not solve all those problems, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.