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Sheriff Could Not Block CPRA Request For Investigation Records Because He Was Not A County Employee

CATEGORY: Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Safety
DATE: Aug 04, 2022

In September 2020, several non-sworn County of Sonoma management employees and the Chair of the Board of Supervisors jointly retained a private law firm to conduct an impartial investigation into a complaint against Sheriff Mark Essick.

In December a local newspaper submitted a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) seeking the final investigative report.  The County Counsel’s office informed Essick that it intended to release the documents requested, which included the original complaint, the formal notice containing the outcome of the investigation, the confidential executive summary of the investigative report, and a redacted copy of the confidential investigative report (collectively referred to as “investigation report”).

Sheriff Essick then filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the County to prevent the release of the investigation report to the newspaper.  The superior court denied Sheriff Essick’s “reverse” CPRA complaint.  The trial court entered a minute order denying the preliminary injunction, ruling there was no evidence to show the investigative records should be classified as “personnel records” (Penal Code Section 832.7(a)) that are protected from public release.  Essick appealed.

In the California Court of Appeal, Essick primarily relied upon the “Pitchess” process outlined in Penal Code Sections 832.7 and 832.8, which provides a procedure for maintaining as “confidential” the “personnel records of peace officers” as well as “information obtained from these records.”  Essick also argued that the County could not release the investigation report because the County promised him that it would abide by Government Code Section 3300 et seq. (the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act [POBRA]), and it, therefore, was bound to keep the results of the investigation confidential.

The Court noted that those laws only applied if Essick could prove that the County was Essick’s employer.  The Court found Essick failed to do.

First, the Court noted that the sheriff is a public official elected by Sonoma County voters.  As a result, he is ultimately responsible to the voters alone.  The County Board of Supervisors lacks any authority to hire, appoint, discipline, or terminate the sheriff.  The Court rejected Essick’s argument that Government Code Section 25303 created an employer-employee relationship between the Board of Supervisors and the county sheriff.  That law gives the County Board of Supervisors the “duty to supervise the conduct of all county officers.”  The Court found this statute gave the Board only an oversight responsibility, but no actual power to direct how the sheriff carried out official duties. The Pitchess statutes, which make peace officer records confidential, only apply to “personnel records”.  Pitchess defines “personnel records” as anything in a file maintained under the officer’s name “by his or her employing agency” (Penal Code Section 832.8(a) [emphasis added].)

Second, the Court concluded that the County did not take on the role of Essick’s employer by requesting the investigation report.  Because the investigation report was the product of an independent outside query, the fact that the Board initiated the complaint intake, decided to investigate, determined the process of investigation, made a final determination, and maintained the records relating to the complaint was merely part of the Board’s legislative oversight role.

Finally, Essick argued that the fact that the County promised to conduct the investigation under POBRA created an enforceable legal promise that the records would be confidential.  The Court disagreed.  The Court noted that nothing in the POBRA guarantees confidentiality against CPRA requests; the confidentiality of peace officer records comes from the Pitchess statutes.  Since the County was not Essick’s employer, the Pitchess confidentiality statutes did not apply.  The Court found that the Pitchess statutes “provide no shield against embarrassment to an elected official who also happens to be a peace officer.”

The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Sheriff Essick’s request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the CPRA request.

Essick v. County of Sonoma, 80 Cal.App.5th 562 (2022).

Note: 

This case confirms that Sheriffs are elected officials and not employees who are entitled to any of the myriads of California’s employment laws. 

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