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Is Timing Really Everything? Wyatt v. Kern High School Sheds New Light on a Public Agency’s Obligations under Senate Bill 1421 and Senate Bill 16
Senate Bill 1421 (“SB 1421”) went into effect on January 1, 2019. As a result, under Government Code section 832.7 as amended, certain types of peace officer personnel records became subject to disclosure pursuant to a California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) request. Shortly after the effective date of SB 1421, Kern High School District received CPRA requests for such records from several sources, including news agencies. Upon receipt of these CPRA requests, the District notified Jerald Wyatt, a police officer it previously employed, that it identified responsive documents in his personnel file.
During Mr. Wyatt’s employment, an internal affairs investigation was opened into allegations against him. However, by the time the investigation was completed, the District no longer considered Mr. Wyatt an active employee. When Mr. Wyatt requested access to his personnel file, he discovered among other things, a document listing two sustained findings for “Misuse of [the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System]” and “Dishonesty.” Mr. Wyatt claimed that he was not notified of these findings. Under SB 1421, records relating to sustained findings of certain dishonesty-related misconduct by a peace officer are discloseable pursuant to a CPRA request.
Upon receipt of the notification, Mr. Wyatt filed a petition for a writ of mandate, temporary restraining order, and preliminary injunction, to enjoin the District from producing documents in his personnel file in response to the CPRA requests. He argued that the records at issue did not relate to “sustained” findings (as the term is defined in Penal Code section 832.8, subdivision (b)) because he was never notified of such findings, and did not receive an opportunity to administratively appeal. The case ultimately made its way to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Endeavoring to determine the parameters of the District’s obligations in connection with the CPRA requests at issue, the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Wyatt v. Kern High School (2022) — Cal.Rptr.3d – first considered SB 1421.
Looking to the legislative history of SB 1421, the appellate court found no indication that the Legislature considered a situation such as Mr. Wyatt’s – that is, a situation where sustained findings were made after a peace officer’s separation from employment. Under these circumstances, California courts would have to guess between two equally plausible outcomes – that the Legislature would have determined that the records are disclosable or, just as likely, that it would have concluded that a peace officer’s privacy interests prevail in the absence of notice and an opportunity to administratively appeal. Refusing to engage in guesswork, the appellate court found that the records at issue were not disclosable under SB 1421.
The appellate court’s analysis did not end there, however. The Fifth District acknowledged that, pursuant to Senate Bill 16, which expanded upon SB 1421 and went into effect on January 1, 2022, “Records that shall be released pursuant to this subdivision also include records relating to an incident specified in paragraph (1) in which the peace officer or custodial officer resigned before the law enforcement agency or oversight agency concluded its investigation into the alleged incident.” (Penal Code § 832.7, subd. (b)(3).) The appellate court expressed no opinion as to what the outcome of CPRA requests for the records at issue received on or after January 1, 2022 might be.
In light of the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Wyatt v. Kern High School, a public agency’s obligations when faced with a CPRA request may depend, in great part, on whether a finding was “sustained,” within the meaning of applicable law, and the timing of the request. If a CPRA request seeks records of sustained findings as to which a peace officer did not receive notification or an opportunity to administratively appeal, such records are not disclosable under SB 1421 if the request was received on or before December 31, 2021.
Whether such records are disclosable under SB 16 if the request was made on or after January 1, 2022 is an open question. Agencies are strongly encouraged to consult with an attorney prior to responding to CPRA requests pursuant to SB 1421 and SB 16.