Santa Barbara County law enforcement groups recently filed a lawsuit against District Attorney Thomas Sneddon because they believe one of his office’s policies threatens police officers’ right to privacy.
Six groups, including the Santa Barbara Police Dept., the University of California Police Dept. and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, filed the suit April 12 seeking a court order to stop a policy that allows the D.A.’s office to give information about police misconduct to defense attorneys at its own discretion.
Tom Sneddon and the District Attorney’s office said the policy, which was put into effect last April, is in accordance with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
“We believe we have to have information about officers with issues of honesty or use of excessive force and hand them over to the defense. It has nothing to do with going into personnel files of the officers,” Sneddon said.
A 1974 law allows defendants to make a “pitchess motion,” in which defendants make a request to the judge to view certain police files when there is a question of misconduct. However, the officers who filed the suit believe the policy used by Sneddon’s office is not in accordance with the law.
The Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 50,000 officers in the state, is sponsoring the lawsuit as part of a statewide mission to protect officers’ rights.
“This lawsuit deals with a real threat to the officers’ privacy rights,” PORAC president Clancy Faria said. “What we would like to see is more pitchess motions, so the process could go through a judge.”
PORAC got involved in the lawsuit because the Santa Barbara district attorney’s policy is the “worst in the state,” said Sgt. Mike McGrew, president of the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association. McGrew also said that Sneddon’s adoption of the policy is surprising because it facilitates the work of defense lawyers, and Sneddon is known as a strict prosecutor.
“It’s confusing. He’s an aggressive DA,” he said. “There are actually no files right now on any officers in Santa Barbara. We really don’t know why he did this. It’s surprising to me.”
“They want to fight the battle here in Santa Barbara to set an example for the protection of officers’ rights,” he said.
Sneddon said his policy upholds the decision made in the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which allows prosecutors to provide information about police misconduct. He said the information is in a database and will not include information based on rumors or hearsay.
“This policy was not developed in response to any local problem. It was totally driven by the court decision that we felt obligated to turn over and follow it,” he said.
UCPD Capt. Bill Bean said he believes the Brady decision is meant to further the rights of the accused, not to infringe on the rights of officers.
“It’s a process of law they have to go through, which I think is fine. [Sneddon] took a different slant on a provision of the law which offers the police officers information, and I think that’s what is making people upset,” he said.