San Jose’s Democratic Assemblyman Ash Kalra was looking for a state lawmaker across the aisle with criminal justice experience to support a criminal justice reform bill earlier this month when he reached out to Jordan Cunningham.
Cunningham — a former prosecutor now working in defense — has gained a reputation as a lawmaker with an expertise in the sometimes politically conflicting areas of public safety and law enforcement accountability in his one-and-a-half terms as the Central Coast’s representative in the Assembly.
Though he wasn’t a co-sponsor of the former public defender Kalra’s legislation to shorten the time it takes for criminal defendants to get information about misconduct by police officers involved in their cases, Cunningham took the Assembly floor in support of the bill he called both “consistent with due process” and “a good change in law.”
“I can tell you as a deputy (district attorney), the last thing you want to do is carry a case forward to a jury not knowing whether you’re going to put a police officer on the stand that has impeachment material in their file that you haven’t gotten access to,” Cunningham said on the floor May 22. “I know a lot of my colleagues on our side of the aisle are nervous about this bill, but I don’t think you should be.”
Cunningham has set himself apart as an ally when it comes to several hot-button issues of the day: law enforcement transparency, criminal justice reform, public safety, commercial privacy and predatory lending, to name a few. He describes himself as a free market capitalist but also a moderate conservative in the vein of popular three-term local Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian.
He was named Legislator of the Year this year by law enforcement groups such as the state Police Chiefs and District Attorneys associations.
“I try to be thoughtful,” Cunningham said last week from the road back to San Luis Obispo County for the Memorial Day weekend. “To be effective in this line of work, where I can, I try to find agreement.”
Cunningham said that, like it or not, trust in law enforcement has eroded in recent years, referring to his support for aspects of criminal justice reform — not usually popular among his GOP colleagues.
“It’s unhealthy to society — they’re the people who come when we call,” Cunningham said of police. “I’m trying to use the position I have to do the job the voters sent me to do, things that are pro-transparency.”
Cunningham’s most high-profile legislative efforts have aimed to tighten laws that give more tools to prosecutors to combat human sex and labor trafficking and convict offenders.
Two of Cunningham’s four anti-sex trafficking bills submitted last session were signed into law by former Governor Jerry Brown. This week, two anti-human trafficking bills he authored cleared the Assembly and are headed to the state Senate.
Assembly Bill 662 would modernize that law with gender-neutral terms and remove the requirement that the minor be of “previous chaste character” and make other technical changes Cunningham says would “breathe life into a little-used statute that could be helpful in closing down trafficking locations by simplifying current law.”
Current state law prohibits “entic(ing) an unmarried female under 18 years of age and of previous chaste character to a house of prostitution or elsewhere for the purpose of prostitution or illicit carnal connection with a man, to aid or assist in that enticement, or to procure by fraudulent means a female to have illicit carnal connection with a man, as specified.”
The bill passed 76-0 in the Assembly.
The other Cunningham public safety bill to move to the Senate this week was Assembly Bill 663, which would double minimum fines for people convicted of soliciting a minor for sex, if they knew the victim was a minor, according to the language in the bill. Under the law, counties would retain up to 75% of all fines collected for the purpose of providing services to trafficking victims. The bill passed 71-4.
Both had their first reading in the Senate on Wednesday and are awaiting committee referral, according to the state Legislature website.
Of Cunningham’s two anti-human trafficking bills passed last session, one authorizes optional 10-year protection orders for victims of labor trafficking; and another allows a victim’s prior statements to be introduced at trial if the victim could not testify, even if those statements were inconsistent.
Cunningham’s first anti-trafficking package was a mixed bag, however.
The Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety rejected a bill that would have required 20-year registration for anyone convicted of the commission or solicitation of a sexual act with a minor, if the person knew the victim was both underage and being trafficked, as well as a bill that would have simplified the definition of pandering.
“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery,” Cunningham said in a written statement in February. “We were able to pass a number of important bills to fight trafficking last year, but there is still more we can do to protect victims and give law enforcement the tools they need.”
Transparency and deadly force
But another bill that Cunningham authored this year aimed at public accountability appears dead for the time being.
Assembly Bill 1599 would have changed law to allow prosecutors to file sexual battery charges against public officials, including police officers, who abuse their color of authority to gain sexual favors.
The bill was spurred by the local case of a Paso Robles police sergeant accused of rape and other sexual misconduct, who was not charged by the SLO DA’s Office despite the Sheriff’s Office recommending forcible rape charges. Cunningham concedes that he doesn’t know the facts of the case or why the former officer wasn’t charged.
Cunningham said last week the charge would have been a “wobbler” — meaning it could be a misdemeanor or felony — and that the bill had the support of several law enforcement associations.
Despite that, the Public Safety Committee found that existing law already covered those circumstances, with Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer writing: “It is unclear how this bill would address either of the evidentiary problems that the district attorney cited as the reason for not pressing charges against the officer in Paso Robles.”
Though it is unclear whether Cunningham will pursue a similar bill in the future, he says he supports other legislation brought by colleagues to rein in abuses by police officers, including a bill that would create some of the toughest use-of-force standards in the nation.
“AB 392 was a result of fair compromise between law enforcement organizations and the bill’s author,” Cunningham wrote in an email. “It allows new training requirements that will help lower the number of deadly force cases in our state to move forward, and preserves officers’ ability to do their jobs safely.”
He added: “I am glad that we can put this issue to rest and start mending the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Privacy and consumer rights
Cunningham’s recent efforts have focused on more than law enforcement and public safety.
A bill he authored to protect consumers against smart speaker manufacturers retaining or distributing voice recordings or transcriptions without the user’s consent passed the Assembly 44-6 with bipartisan support this week, and will also head to the state Senate.
Cunningham called corporate concerns for privacy an “illusion,” and cited recent scandals at Google and Facebook as examples in which “data can be sold to the highest bidder, breaches are covered up and ‘smart speakers’ eavesdrop on us in the privacy of our own home,” in a Jan. 28 opinion piece in The San Francisco Chronicle.
“Today, the State Assembly sent a strong message to the tech giants who have spent years recording and retaining private conversations in the home via smart devices,” Cunningham said in a written statement. “Tech giants have provided consumers with a false choice: live in a smart and interconnected home, or keep your conversations private. We can have both.”
Cunningham spoke in favor Tuesday of another bill to take on corporate greed.
An anti-predatory lending bill authored by Democratic Assembly members Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, and Tim Grayson, D-Concord, would cap unreasonable interest rates on consumer loans from predatory lenders.
“They are not being told in a lot of these products the actual cost of the debt they are carrying,” Cunningham said in a video posted to his Facebook page. “I’m a free-market capitalist and unashamed of it. But sometimes we need to stand up for people who are being preyed upon. ... They are putting chains on themselves in the form of debt, and they need our help.”
No Republican Assembly member had signed on to the bill prior to Cunningham speaking on it. Eight Republicans eventually voted for it.