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Agency Could Not Withhold Peace Officer Records Because They Were Prepared By Another Agency Or Pertained To Another Agency’s Officer
Peace officer personnel records are generally not disclosed under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Penal Code section 832.7, however, requires the disclosure of peace officer records in response to a CPRA request that relates to the following incidents: (i) a peace officer discharges a firearm at a person; (ii) a peace officer’s use of force results in death or great bodily injury; or (iii) a law enforcement agency sustains a finding that a peace officer sexually assaulted a member of the public.
The First Amendment Coalition (Coalition) is a non-profit corporation dedicated to advancing free speech and ensuring open and accountable government. KQED, Inc. (KQED) is a community-supported media organization that provides news to Northern California via radio, television, and digital media. In January 2019, the Coalition made a CPRA request to the Department of Justice and the Attorney General (collectively, the Department) for records from 2016 to 2018 relating to the categories of peace officer records outlined in the Penal Code section 832.7. In February 2019, KQED sought similar records from the Department.
The Department partially denied these CPRA requests because the Attorney General may have obtained the requested records from other state and local law agencies. The Department asserted that it was not required or authorized to disclose records it obtained from other agencies and concerning non-employees because it was not the agency that “maintains” those records. The Department advised the Coalition and KQED to request the records from the other agencies that actually employed the peace officers referenced in the records sought. However, the Department agreed to produce, with redactions, records relating to only the Department’s peace officers employees.
The Coalition and KQED jointly petitioned for a writ of mandate to compel the Department’s compliance with their CPRA requests. The trial court granted the writ petition and ordered the Department to produce all requested records.
The Department thereafter petitioned the Court of Appeal to vacate the trial court’s order. The Department argued it was not obligated to disclose peace officer records not created by Department and/or concerning non-employee officers.
The Court of Appeal disagreed. After examining the plain language of both Penal Code section 832.7 and the CPRA, the Court held that both explicitly require an agency to disclose peace officer records pursuant to a CPRA request even if the records (i) concern officers who are not employed by the agency or (ii) were not created by the agency. Penal Code section 832.7 states that “peace officer … personnel records and records maintained by any state or local agency” are disclosable pursuant to a CPRA request. The CPRA states that the public has a right to inspect “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business … retained by” a state or local agency. The Court of Appeal also stated that its holding aligned with the Legislature’s intent to promote greater transparency regarding peace officer misconduct and use of force.
The Department also argued that the peace officer records at issue could not be withheld under the “catchall exemption” in the CPRA, which allows a public agency to withhold a record if the agency demonstrates that “the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”
Despite confirming that peace officer personnel records may be subject to the catchall exemption, the Court of Appeal held that the Department could not withhold the specific peace officer’s records sought by the CPRA requests. The Department failed to demonstrate that public fiscal and administrative concerns over the expense and inconvenience of responding to the CRPA requests outweighed the public interest in disclosure of the records.
Becerra v. Superior Court of City and County of San Francisco (First Amendment Coalition, et al), 44 Cal.App.5th 897 (2020).
This case holds that agencies cannot decline to CPRA requests on the grounds that the records concern peace officer personnel from other agencies. LCW attorneys can help agencies comply in full with their CPRA obligations.