Reporting from Sacramento — State lawmakers moved Tuesday to vastly expand the powers of the Los Angeles city attorney by supporting a measure that would give him his own grand jury.
City Atty. Carmen Trutanich asked that Los Angeles be the only city in California given power to empanel a grand jury to investigate significant misdemeanor cases. Legislation approved by the state Senate on Tuesday would grant that request, providing the panel with authority to subpoena documents and compel testimony before criminal charges are filed.
"This is a tool that, when used properly, will get to the bottom of a real criminal act," Trutanich said. "I know from a public safety standpoint the citizens of Los Angeles will be much better off for it."
The measure, SB 1168, was approved 23 to 9 and sent to the Assembly, where it is expected to receive bipartisan support, as it did in the Senate.
Law professor Gerald F. Uelmen said he was not aware of any other city attorney in the nation with the power to empanel a grand jury for misdemeanor cases. Trutanich's proposal "seems like a rather elaborate solution to a simple problem," said Uelmen, who teaches at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Opponents questioned the need for another grand jury in a county where the district attorney already has power to empanel two criminal grand juries for felony cases.
State Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) asked whether misdemeanors "rise to the necessity of a grand jury."
Trutanich said in an earlier interview that the power would have come in handy when his office filed civil fines against hospitals for dumping indigent patients on skid row in Los Angeles. No one was charged criminally for those actions.
He complains of a Catch-22: He can't slap the hospitals involved with subpoenas for records, or compel witnesses to tell what they know, before he files criminal charges. But filing charges requires such evidence to back them up.
"Sometimes you want to pull your hair out," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice if, before you filed a criminal case against a hospital, you were able to get your hands on the e-mails so you could see whether or not there was an administrator involved in putting this patient directly at risk?"
Trutanich was in Sacramento on Tuesday to press his case, telling lawmakers that he envisions a grand jury being useful in a wide range of cases, including those involving fraud against consumers, workplace safety violations, corruption and environmental crimes.
"It will tell me who is involved in the decision to put up a supergraphic in the middle of the night and what did the advertiser know, what did the building owner know and what did the supergraphic company know? Did they come together to conspire to break the law?" Trutanich said.
The legislation would give a new grand jury power to investigate crimes but not to issue indictments. Still, some opponents call his proposal an attempted power grab. Some say the politically ambitious Trutanich should be more creative in using the power he has; they add that his bid raises significant privacy concerns and threatens to trample the rights of the innocent.
"I don't like the idea," said criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun. "I'm really suspicious of this because it's the kind of thing that can be abused…. He has engaged in a lot of political grandstanding."
Braun said Trutanich went "over the top" in demanding $1-million bail for a businessman who allegedly put up a large illegal sign, and for a war of words with the owners of Staples Center over the city's cost of policing the memorial for pop star Michael Jackson.
Violators of local billboard ordinances are among those Trutanich says he would possibly investigate using new powers, which he is seeking through SB 1168, by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).
Cedillo says he has taken up Trutanich's cause because he believes city investigators need more tools to hold those who break the law accountable.
"This is critical, particularly during difficult economic times. You don't want to let things unravel. You have to stop people from committing quality-of-life crimes," Cedillo said. "It will have a chilling effect to let them know there are now people available who can actually get subpoenas, who can bring in records and prepare cases."
Ronald J. Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University, cautioned that under Trutanich's plan, "decisions that might otherwise be made in public are not made in public and so the public loses the ability to scrutinize them."
Los Angeles City Council members Jan Perry, Bernard C. Parks and Greig Smith lobbied against the bill, arguing that the city can't afford to take on another costly program at a time when it is slashing other services. Perry introduced a resolution to oppose the Trutanich bill.
"I'm extremely concerned about the cost implications of the proposed bill to the city of Los Angeles," Perry said.
Trutanich estimates it would cost about $600,000 to operate the grand jury full-time for a year. But he said a panel would not likely be needed full time. Savings would exceed the cost, he said.
Cost issues aside, Perry is among those wary of giving Trutanich any more power than he already has.
She has accused the city attorney of threatening to throw her in jail for working against his plan to block the approval of giant billboards proposed at L.A. Live downtown.