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Timing Of CPRA Request Prevented Disclosure Of Peace Officer Records

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

Jerald Wyatt was a police officer for Kern High School District (KHSD).  During Kern’s employment, an internal affairs investigation was opened into allegations against him.  By the time the investigation was completed, the KHSD no longer considered Wyatt an active employee.  In November 2017, Wyatt requested to review his KHSD personnel records.  He made the request because he had “been offered a position with the Kern County [District Attorney’s] Office as an Investigator,” and the DA was about to conduct his background investigation.  When Wyatt requested access to his personnel file, he discovered a document listing two sustained findings for “Misuse of [the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System]” and “Dishonesty.”  Wyatt claimed that he was not notified of these findings.

On January 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1421 (SB 1421) went into effect.  This law permits certain types of peace officer personnel records to be disclosed under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).  The disclosable records include records relating to sustained findings of certain dishonesty-related peace officer misconduct.  Prior to this law, such records were only accessible via a Pitchess motion.

Following the enactment of SB 1421, KHSD received various records requests seeking information concerning KHSD officer-involved events. On April 25, 2019, upon receipt of the CPRA requests, KHSD notified Wyatt that it had identified “documents from [Wyatt’s] personnel file responsive to these requests”.

Upon receipt of the notification, Wyatt filed a petition for a writ of mandate, temporary restraining order, and preliminary injunction, to enjoin KHSD from producing his personnel documents 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(b)) because he was never notified of such findings, and did not receive an opportunity to administratively appeal.  KHSD argued that Wyatt’s voluntary separation of employment precluded KHSD from imposing discipline, and, there was, therefore, no need for KHSD to provide Wyatt with notice and an opportunity for administrative appeal.  KHSD contended Wyatt’s voluntary separation of employment from KHSD effectively waived his right to any administrative appeal.

The trial court determined KHSD had an obligation to give proper notice of a ‘final determination’ [to Wyatt] if one had been made, and not simply place a “memo to file” among other records. The trial court ruled “[t]he subject records relate to an incident for which there was no ‘sustained finding’ within the meaning of Penal Code [Section] 832.7 (b), and are therefore confidential and exempt from disclosure under state law,” citing Government Code Section 6254(k) and Penal Code Section 832.7(a). KHSD appealed to the Fifth District of the California Court of Appeal.

The appellate court examined the statutes at issue.  The term “sustained” as used in Penal Code Section 832.7 is (and, at the time of the CPRA requests, was) defined in Penal Code Section 832.8 as: “ ‘Sustained’ means a final determination by an investigating agency, commission, board, hearing officer, or arbitrator, as applicable, following an investigation and opportunity for an administrative appeal pursuant to Sections 3304 and 3304.5 of the Government Code, that the actions of the peace officer or custodial officer were found to violate the law or departmental policy.

The Court found the statutes continue to protect peace officer privacy interests except for certain records including those that relate to “sustained” findings involving certain types of officer misconduct.  The Court also found that the alleged “sustained” findings contained in the IA findings document do not fit precisely within the plain language of Senate Bill 1421 since Wyatt was never provided notice and an opportunity to challenge the findings by way of an administrative appeal.  The appellate court concluded that the records at issue were not disclosable.

The appellate court also noted that the CPRA request at issue in this case was made before January 1, 2022.  Senate Bill 16, which went into effect on January 1, 2022, after the CPRA request in this case.  Under Senate Bill 16, “Records that shall be released pursuant to this subdivision also include records relating to an incident … in which the peace officer or custodial officer resigned before the law enforcement agency … concluded its investigation into the alleged incident.”  (Penal Code Section 832.7(b)(3).)  As a result, the Court directed the trial court to limit the injunction to prohibit disclosure of the subject records only in response to those CPRA requests received by KHSD prior to January 1, 2022.  To the extent KHSD may receive future CPRA requests on or after January 1, 2022, seeking disclosure of the subject records, the Court said that neither its opinion in this case nor the judgment or writ issued in the trial court will determine whether the subject records should be disclosed.

Wyatt v. Kern High School,  2022 WL 2662880.

Note:

The Court found that Senate Bill 16, effective January 1, 2022, made the issue of a sustained finding irrelevant if a subject peace officer resigns before the law enforcement agency concludes its investigation into alleged misconduct.

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