The nation’s two largest bar associations should prohibit elected prosecutors from accepting campaign support or donations from police unions, four current and former elected district attorneys said.
The prescription included in a letter on Monday to California Bar executives comes as district attorneys anticipate instances where they’ll wind up prosecuting individual officers relating to conduct during escalating unrest over racism and police killings of unarmed blacks. Protesters have clashed with law enforcement in a number of cities.
“Across California there are dozens of law enforcement unions representing rank-and-file police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and correctional officers. And these unions play a major role in state and even local politics,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton. “They’re well-funded, they purport to represent the interests and position of law enforcement in elections, and on issues before the voters in the Legislature.”
The current rules don’t preclude an attorney or prosecutor from receiving financial support, she said.
San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar told reporters that “we know that change must occur and must occur now.”
The proposed rule of professional responsibility would prohibit prosecutors from seeking or soliciting endorsements or campaign contributions.
How swiftly that happens is unknown. Typically the rulemaking process involves a proposed draft, a 60-day comment period, and a final rule which must be approved by the California Supreme Court.
The four current and former DAs sent the letter to California Bar executives with one forthcoming to the American Bar Association making the case for an expedited professional conduct rule or an ethics opinion to “explicitly preclude elected prosecutors-or prosecutors seeking election-from seeking or accepting political or financial support from law enforcement unions.”
Salazar, Becton, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, and former San Francisco DA George Gascón pitched for the change after demonstrations over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25 escalated over the weekend into violence, looting, and property damage in a number of cities in California and elsewhere.
“I think it’s apparent to all of us today that America has a crisis of trust in law enforcement,” Boudin said.
The request for the California Bar to immediately take up the request is needed to “cure the conflict,” ensure independence of elected prosecutors, and enhance public trust, he said. District attorneys “undoubtedly will be required to review use of force incidents involving police union members.”
“This request of a rule change is just the start on a long journey to restore and rebuild trust, but it’s also a very necessary step to take money and political influence out of the equation,” Boudin said.
The California Bar received the letter Monday “and a statement is premature,” spokeswoman Teresa Ruano said.
The proposal won’t change the San Francisco Police Officers Association political activity, said the group’s president, Tony Montoya.
“If any attorney running for office does not have the moral and ethical principles to separate politics from their sworn duty, they should turn in their Bar card and not seek public office. It is also telling that there is not a similar proposal to eliminate contributions from special interests who have more direct conflicts, such as high-priced defense and civil attorneys, so-called criminal justice reform groups as well as corporate interests,” Montoya said in an emailed statement.
University of California Hastings Law Professor Richard Zitrin applauded the proposal.
“Free speech for lawyers is not unlimited and lawyers can be regulated,” Zitrin said. “Such a rule would have to focus on whether candidates for DAs who are lawyers may accept those donations. It can’t focus on whether the donor can offer the donations.”
The legislative process in the bar must be voted on, said Gascón, who is running for district attorneyin Los Angeles after moving from San Francisco.
“I don’t necessarily see it as being unprecedented. The realities are there are already a lot of restrictions around prosecutors taking money from individuals that are representing others that have cases in front of that office,” Gascón said.