First-in-the-nation legislation labeled “Cure the Conflict” to require prosecutors recuse themselves from investigating, prosecuting police misconduct if they’ve received campaign contributions from police unions
Does not include similar provisions for contributions from criminal defense attorneys
Becton wants to take it further and ban contributions from police unions to DA candidates; refuses to answer questions
By Allen Payton
In her continued effort to limit the influence of police unions in supporting and electing candidates for district attorney, Contra Costa DA offered support on Friday, Oct. 23 for the bill by California State Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) that will require elected prosecutors to recuse themselves from the investigation and prosecution of law enforcement misconduct if they accept financial contributions from law enforcement unions. The legislation will be sponsored by the Prosecutors Alliance of California and co-sponsored by numerous District Attorneys. It will be introduced when the new legislative session convenes in December.
“This is about trust in law enforcement, and trust in the independence of our elected prosecutors,” said Bonta. “As people across our cities, states and our nation have come together to raise their voices and demand greater justice, we must cure the conflict of interest that gives, at minimum, the appearance that police are not held accountable due to the proximity and political influence of law enforcement associations and unions.”
“Now, more than ever, prosecutors have the responsibility to promote equal justice and build trust with the communities we serve. In order to do that, we must eliminate the conflict of interest existing when elected prosecutors accept police union support,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “It is only when prosecutors are not financially beholden to law enforcement unions that the public can be confident in the decisions prosecutors make about holding police officers accountable.”
“Law enforcement unions generally finance the legal representation of an accused officer, and when prosecutors receive financial support from the entity funding the defense a conflict of interest arises for elected prosecutors,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton. “To restore trust in law enforcement we must cure this conflict.”
Recently, the Prosecutors Alliance of California called on the State Bar to create a new rule of professional responsibility to preclude prosecutors from taking police union money. The Alliance took this step in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in an effort to increase the independence of prosecutors from police. The State Bar is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow to continue discussions on the topic.
According to a June 1st press release from Becton’s office, “The Prosecutors Alliance of California is a non-profit organization that provides public education, support and training to prosecutors and their offices. The Prosecutors Alliance of California Action Fund is a social welfare organization that advocates for criminal justice reform legislation, engages and educates the public on criminal justice ballot measures, and supports candidates for state and local office who advocate for comprehensive reforms to our justice system.” (See related article)
The bill by Bonta to be considered by the Legislature will take a different path. Rather than precluding prosecutors from soliciting or accepting law enforcement union contributions as Becton supported earlier this year, it requires a prosecutor that accepts a law enforcement union’s contribution to recuse themselves from the decision-making process if one of the organization’s members is suspected of criminal conduct. In such cases, the State Attorney General’s Office would be asked to handle the case. This will help reassure family members, community stakeholders and the public that decisions are made based on the facts and the law, not political horse trading and back scratching.
According to Becton and Bonta, “by closing this loophole, the Legislature will reduce the presence of conflicts of interest and ensure independence on the part of elected prosecutors. This legislation also aspires to help reestablish community trust in the integrity of prosecutors at a time when national events have damaged that trust.”
A question was sent to Becton on Oct. 23 asking her if she also supports DA’s recusing themselves from cases involving prosecution of public defenders or criminal defense attorneys who have contributed to the campaigns of elected prosecutors.
That was along the same lines of the questions sent through Scott Alonso, her department’s public information officer, earlier this year to which Becton never responded. She was asked specifically, will she try to ban political campaign contributions to DA candidates from criminal defense attorneys and public defenders and not just police unions?
Following is the email message with questions sent to Alonso for Becton on June 1 regarding her press release entitled, “LAW ENFORCEMENT LEADERS CALL ON STATE BAR TO CREATE NEW ETHICS RULE TO END THE CONFLICT OF INTEREST BETWEEN PROSECUTORS AND POLICE UNIONS – New Ethics Rule Would Help Restore the Independence, Integrity, and Trust of Elected Prosecutors by Preventing Them From Taking Donations From Police Unions”
Please ask DA Becton to clarify her comment because it’s not clear what she’s trying to say and answer my questions, below.
“The legal representation of an accused officer is generally financed by their law enforcement union,” said Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton. “It is illogical that the rules prohibit prosecutors from soliciting and benefiting from financial and political support from an accused officer’s advocate in court, while enabling the prosecutor to benefit financially and politically from the accused’s advocate in public.”
Is she saying that currently a prosecutor cannot solicit and benefit from financial and political support from an attorney representing a police officer accused of a crime while in court or during the court case? But the police officer’s attorney can support the prosecutor financially and politically when not in court or during the court case?
Please clarify who the accused is in her comment about the “accused’s advocate”. I assume it’s the same accused officer she refers to twice before in her comment. But, not sure.
Also, are she and the rest of the DA’s willing to forgo any financial contributions from criminal defense attorneys and public defenders? How about no financial support from any organization and only from individuals who live within their counties? How far should this go to ensure fairness in prosecutions? Isn’t this really one-sided? Also, if the police unions have so much influence in our county and they all backed Becton’s opponent in the last election how did she still win? Isn’t she in effect attempting to violate the free speech rights – which political campaign contributions have been defined as by the courts – of the police unions?
Alonso responded that because the questions were political, he could not respond, even though the press release was sent from the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office through his email account. Further efforts asking him to forward the questions to Becton and getting her to respond were unsuccessful.
The latest question about the proposed legislation by Bonta and the questions from June 1st were sent to Becton’s personal email address on Friday, Oct. 23
Previously, a phone call to her was made asking her about the issue, but Becton was watching a Zoom meeting and said she didn’t have time to discuss it.
To date, Becton has yet to answer any of the questions posed to her about her efforts to only limit the influence of police unions in elections for district attorneys and not also limit the influence by criminal defense attorneys.
Please check back later for any updates to this report.
Scott Alonso, Public Information Officer, Office of the District Attorney, Contra Costa County contributed to this report.