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Peace Officer Record Disclosure Law Supersedes Contrary Secrecy Laws
Penal Code section 832.7 was amended to promote transparency and public access to certain peace officer records. Under section 832.7(b), records relating to officers who commit specified types of harmful or unlawful conduct are public records under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).
The First Amendment Coalition and KQED Inc. (the Requestors) filed CPRA requests for records with the California Attorney General and the Department of Justice (Department) relating to: 1) a peace or custodial officer’s discharge of a firearm at a person; 2) a peace or custodial officer’s use of force that resulted in death or great bodily injury; and 3) a sustained finding of dishonesty or sexual assault against an officer. These categories of records are among those that Section 832.7(b) makes available for public inspection.
A portion of the CPRA (Gov. Code section 7927.705), however, states that public agencies generally do not have to disclose records that are exempted or prohibited from disclosure under “state law”. Relying on that part of the CPRA, the Department withheld some records that were either exempted or prohibited from disclosure by Government Code section 11183, Penal Code sections 6126 and 6126.3, and/or Unemployment Insurance Code section 1094. In response, the Requestors filed a motion to get the withheld records. The Requestors lost in the trial court and appealed.
The California Court of Appeal held that Penal Code section 832.7(b) supersedes conflicting state law disclosure exemptions. The Court reasoned that to interpret the new law otherwise would “nullify” its application to a significant swath of officer-related records.
The Court found support for its interpretation in Penal Code section 832.7(b)’s legislative history. That history emphasized that the public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Concealing officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.
First Amendment Coalition et al v. Superior Court, 98 Cal.App5th 593 (2023).