California Attorney General Doubles Down On Threatening Journalists For Possessing Convicted Cops List
from the I-guess-the-Constitution-only-protects-bad-cops dept
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has decided there’s too much First Amendment in his state. First, he ignored clarification provided directly to him by the author of the state’s new public records law to declare past police misconduct records off limits. Claiming the question of retroactivity was still open, Becerra denied public records requests seeking documents created prior to January 1, 2019.
His next potshot at the First Amendment occurred shortly thereafter. Journalists from UC Berkeley received a list of convicted California police officers in response to a records request. The list covered 10 years of convictions and contained 12,000 names. At this point, the journalists have not published the full list. But they have been vetting the list to prep for publication.
That’s where AG Becerra stepped in. He told the journalists it was illegal for them to possess “confidential information” they obtained lawfully through a public records request. He’s wrong, of course. It is not illegal to possess documents received via public records requests even if the government entity has mistakenly sent you the wrong documents.
As for the “confidential” claim, any convictions would already be public records, seeing as prosecutions are handled by the state’s court system. What the list does is provide one-stop shopping for bad cops, which is what law enforcement agencies are doing when they run applicants against this list.
So far, only three officers’ names have been published. AG Becerra is trying to ensure those three names are the only ones the public will ever see. If the First Amendment needs to be damaged to protect bad cops, that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.
In a statement provided to Freedom of the Press Foundation on Wednesday, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice doubled down on the contention that the journalists are breaking the law:
“The UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program is not an entity permitted to possess or use this confidential data. The UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program chose to publish the confidential information of Californians despite being alerted by the Department of Justice that doing so was prohibited by law.”
The AG’s office is still threatening the reporters with criminal charges simply for possessing the list. But even if the journalists publish the list in full, it’s unlikely any court will support Becerra’s decision to pretend the First Amendment doesn’t exist. Both the act of requesting public records and the publication of obtained records are protected speech. AG Becerra has nothing to work with here, but he’s publicly demonstrating his willingness to do whatever it takes to protect the state’s bad cops.
Worse, he’s doubled down. When AG Becerra was asked for clarification by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, he had this to say:
“We always strive to balance the public’s right to know, the need to be transparent and an individual’s right to privacy. In this case, information from a database that’s required by law to be confidential was released erroneously, jeopardizing personal data of individuals across our state. No one wants to shield criminal behavior; we’re subject to the rule of law.”
If Becerra has a problem with “jeopardizing personal data,” the only action he should be taking is against the government entity that (supposedly) breached the law by releasing it to reporters. Becerra’s nod to “rule of law” is especially rich. The Constitution is part of the “law” Becerra professes allegiance to. But it’s clear he’d rather cover up for his cop buddies than respect the parts of the law that restrain his ability to punish people for protected speech.