Targets of grand jury investigations would be allowed to have their attorneys with them during testimony under a bill passed by the state Senate Wednesday.
The measure (AB 527), sponsored by Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), was prompted by his own experience of being indicted by an Orange County grand jury on campaign reporting violations in 1996 after winning his first political race.
Baugh settled the case this year by paying a $47,900 fine for nine violations of the state Political Reform Act. He contends that it might have been resolved earlier if he had been allowed to have an attorney in the room.
Under current California law, grand jury targets cannot be accompanied by an attorney, though a witness can leave the room to consult with a lawyer.
Baugh's attorney--like most other lawyers--advises clients not to risk testifying without legal counsel to guide them.
"The grand jury is the only place in America where you can't take your lawyer," Baugh has said.
His grand jury reform bill passed the Senate on a bipartisan 29-4 vote and must return to the Assembly for routine approval of Senate changes before moving to the governor's desk.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Gray Davis said he has not taken a position on the bill.
Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), noting law enforcement opposition to the measure, said he would not be surprised if Davis vetoed it.
Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, argued against the bill on the Senate floor.
He said the change in the rules would amount to a "bill of rights for white-collar defendants" that would create a "mini-trial in the grand jury room" and make investigations more difficult for law enforcement.
The current grand jury atmosphere has a "tremendous impact on getting a witness to tell the truth," Schiff said.
But Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), who carried the bill for Baugh in the Senate, said Schiff overstated the likely effect of the "modest" grand jury reform.
Under the bill's provisions, defense attorneys would not be permitted to question witnesses, object or argue the merits of a case to the grand jury.
"It gives targets the ability to present exculpatory evidence to prosecutors and to have an attorney there," Johnson said.
Eleven states allow defense attorneys to be in the grand jury room with their clients, though the federal grand jury system forbids it.
Baugh's bill had the support of an atypical alliance of conservatives who oppose government intrusion, and liberals who support defendants' rights.
"This is one of those odd situations where the far right comes around and meets the far left," Schiff said.