Friday, November 20, 2015

Secret police personnel files thwart justice

The other day, Grits described the quandary faced by prosecutors when police departments operating under Texas' civil service code withhold evidence of misconduct that the state is obligated to turn over as impeachment material. This morning I ran across a June 25 editorial from the Beaumont Enterprise describing additional problems with secret disciplinary files. It opened:
At a time when the use of force by police officers is under greater scrutiny than ever, the family of Stanley Leger remains trapped in a frustrating dilemma: It doesn't know if it has grounds to sue the city of Beaumont for his death last June ... because the city is withholding much of the evidence that could shed light on the deadly confrontation. That potential evidence includes, incredibly, a video camera taken from Leger's own house on the night of the shooting.

Cases like this reveal a gap in the state's Public Information Law that should be closed.

Police departments currently do not have to disclose investigatory work if the officers involved in a dispute weren't disciplined or charged with a criminal offense. That includes, by the way, a letter of reprimand, an action that is regarded as discipline in any other personnel context.

Part of the reasoning behind this portion of the law is sound. It is designed to protect officers when invalid complaints are filed against them. Yet the law almost gives police departments an incentive not to discipline officers so that the details of controversial cases can remain locked up. 
Between concealing misconduct for which officers or the department may be civilly liable and thwarting prosecutor's obligation to turn over mitigation evidence to the defense, the secret police personnel files in civil service cities are thwarting justice on multiple fronts.

As Grits wrote earlier, the legislative fix is easy: "Just eliminate (f) and (g) in Local Government Code 143.089 to open those records to the same extent as at county sheriffs and hundreds of other Texas law enforcement agencies." The political calculus for achieving that, by contrast, has been more difficult, but that may be changing, too.


Anonymous said...

With primaries for the 2016 state house elections coming soon, every candidate ahould be asked, for the recored, "Will you eliminate (f) and (g) in Local Government Code 143.089?"
And if not, why not?
Force these wannabees to answer clear, pointy questions.

Gunny Thompson said...

The statute can be repeal by an election. The statute can be held unconstitutional in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Tom said...

In Kyles v. Whitley, the Supreme Court held that the prosecution was responsible for failure to turn over exculpatory evidence even if the police hid the information from the prosecutors. Sooner or later some Brady will pop up in a habeas and the district attorney will take the hit. If I were a local DA, I'd be pissed. At a minimum, they ought issue grand jury subpoenas and have the judges look at the police files in camera.

BrazosBoy said...

A deposition under Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 202 should be considered. See Combs v. Texas Civil Rights Project, 410 SW3d, 529 (Tex. App.- Austin 2013, pet. denied)