Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is asking police officers who testify in court about their history of “truthfulness, biases and disciplinary history.” Officers will now have to complete a questionnaire before they testify, and relevant information will be given to defense attorneys.
It’s a great idea, but Gill is a little late to the party. The City Weekly reported on the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s “bad cop” database in 2015. Davis County District Attorney Troy Rawlings has required officers to answer such questions since 2014. The Department of Justice also has a similar policy.
The case of former Utah Highway Patrol officer Lisa Steed illustrates why prosecutor offices need these policies. In 2012 two judges found that Steed had lied on the witness stand. A 2010 memo suggesting that she had falsified arrest reports indicated that issues existed with Steed’s cases for years. Defendants should have had access to her conduct. Steed’s cases became unreliable, and many cases had to be thrown out.
The Fraternal Order of Police balked at Gill’s questionnaire. The FOP wants a statewide standard rather than a county-by-county approach and may file a federal lawsuit challenging such questionnaires.
It’s imperative for prosecutors to know if officers have lied before, or if they have been disciplined for something that would cause someone to question that officer’s judgment or character. The Constitution requires that prosecutors disclose to defendants any exculpatory evidence. If there is material that calls into question a testifying officer’s credibility or reputation for honesty, defendants should have access to that material.
In fact, prosecutors are obligated to seek out exculpatory information, not just to collate information that comes across their desks. Officer questionnaires fulfill part of that obligation to seek such information. Prosecutors should refuse to file cases until officers provide such information, and such information should be disclosed before plea negotiations begin.
Prosecutors enjoy resources and advantages that defense attorneys often don’t, including adequate funding for investigators, experts, assistants and more. For example, Gill’s office just received funding for two additional prosecutors to address the increased needs arising from Operation Rio Grande. Public defenders did not receive any additional money to deal with the same increased workflow.
No longer do the ends justify the means in the way we prosecute alleged criminals. Police should be on board with practices that encourage fair and constitutional prosecutions. Prosecutor offices should act as a check and balance with law enforcement, not a rubber stamp.