Court Shuts Down Police Union's Attempt To Bury Reporting On Sheriff's Dept.'s Hiring Of Bad Cops, Thieves And Sex Offenders
from the shut-up,-they-motioned dept
Late in 2013, the LA Times published information from applications processed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that showed the agency was generally unconcerned by past misconduct and illegal behavior by applicants — especially if those applicants were former police officers or prison guards. This is the government’s other revolving door, one that ensures a bad cop won’t stay jobless for long.
The local police union and members of the Sheriff’s Department tried to get a court to agree to some prior restraint in hopes of preventing this information from being made public. According to the lawsuit, the documents were “stolen” and, as stolen property, the LA Times had no right to hold onto it, much less publish it.
Of course, this assertion is wrong on multiple levels, starting with the fact that it’s not illegal for journalists to publish stolen documents. If it was, hundreds of journalists would be in jail. The law cited by the union only prevents law enforcement officers from stealing or disseminating this information. On top of that, while the lawsuit alleged the documents were stolen, no evidence was provided to back up this claim.
This attempt to prevent information of public interest from reaching the public was greeted with an anti-SLAPP motion from the LA Times. This was sustained by the lower court, which found the plaintiffs’ arguments severely deficient.
The court noted the Doe declarations ALADS submitted “contain no personal details about the declarants that would relieve them of the obligation of identifying themselves, particularly when the declarations contain the hearsay statement of defendant Faturechi concerning when the article is going to be published and what it will contain — the evidence most critical to the showing of irreparable harm or immediate danger that plaintiff must make to justify ex parte relief.” The court also observed, “The declarations are also very vague in their reference to the personal information that Faturechi told the declarants he would be publishing.” The court “decline[d] to issue a TRO imposing a prior restraint on defendants’ free speech based on the speculative hearsay testimony of anonymous witnesses.”
The court denied the application on the additional ground that ALADS — by its own admission — had known for weeks if not months that the Times had information from the OPS/LASD deputies’ files, that notwithstanding this knowledge it had not proceeded by noticed motion, and therefore that “any exigency appear[ed] to be of [ALADS’] own making . . . . ”
This, of course, led to an appeal.
The appeal, even if successful, would have been a lost cause. By the time it reached the California appeals court, the information had already been published. Once prior restraint was denied, the only thing left for the plaintiffs to do was find some way to punish the paper for its act of journalism.
The appeals court is similarly unmoved by the plaintiffs’ post-publication arguments, which are pretty much mostly a repetition of its previous failed arguments, with the addition of the assertion that the LA Times shouldn’t have been able to invoke anti-SLAPP laws because it was trafficking in “stolen” material. Again, the appeals court agrees with the finding of the lower court — that the plaintiffs make a lot of accusations, but can’t seem to be able to back them up.
ALADS asserts the trial court erred in finding the Times had met its burden on the first step of the analysis because the Times obtained the LASD files “through criminal means.” ALADS repeats the allegation from its complaint that the Times reporter “stole, received from someone else who stole, or otherwise unlawfully came into physical possession of the confidential background investigation files…” As the trial court correctly observed, ALADS has presented no admissible evidence that Faturechi or anyone else at the Times stole anything.
And even if the documents were indeed stolen, the LASD officers and police union can’t seem to find anything that indicates a law was broken by the LA Times’ publication of the material.
ALADS cites — and miscites — various statutes it contends are violated by Faturechi’s mere possession of the records. For example, ALADS asserts that section 6200 of the Government Code makes it a crime for “any person” to steal, remove, or secrete “official government documents.” But the statute does not say “any person.” It says “[e]very officer” who has custody of a record “deposited in any public office” shall not steal, remove, secrete, destroy, mutilate, deface, alter, or falsify the record or permit another person to do so. The section is entitled “Custodial officers; theft, destruction, alteration, falsification.” Similarly, ALADS claims Government Code section 3307.5 “makes it illegal, as a matter of law, for anyone” to release a photograph of a peace officer to the public. In fact, that statute concerns officers’ relationships with the agencies that employ them. It says officers shall not be “required as a condition of employment” to consent to the use of their photographs on the Internet.
The court also addresses the “privacy violation” arguments advanced by the police union and the anonymous Doe plaintiffs, finding them similarly weak.
The first problem with ALADS’ argument is that any privacy right in the information contained in deputies’ employment applications belongs to the deputies (and their employer, LASD), not to the deputies’ labor union. “It is well settled that the right of privacy is purely a personal one; it cannot be asserted by anyone other than the person whose privacy has been invaded, that is, plaintiff must plead and prove that his privacy has been invaded.”
Finally, the court takes on the union’s claim that its attempted prior restraint wasn’t really prior restraint.
[T]he injunction ALADS seeks would not be “content-neutral” at all. ALADS asks the court to enjoin the Times from publishing any article containing any information in 16 listed categories, including the names of any OPS/LASD deputies, their photographs, and their “non-public criminal history.”
In sum, ALADS has cited no case permitting the kind of injunction it seeks here, to restrain a newspaper from publishing news articles on a matter of public concern: the qualifications of applicants for jobs as law enforcement officers. ALADS has cited no case because there is no such case. For more than one hundred years, federal and state courts have refused to allow the subjects of potential news reports to stop journalists from publishing reports about them.
Which is all this actually is. The police union and the Doe officers, too concerned about their reputations to put their name on the lawsuit, wanted nothing more than to bury unflattering information. Neither the union nor the officers seemed to have any problem with former officers fired for misconduct or illegal behavior being allowed back into positions of authority and power, but they had a serious problem with the LA Times letting the public in on its dirty secrets. Fortunately, two consecutive courts refused to buy the plaintiffs’ censorious, malformed arguments.