California Court Says New Records Law Covers Past Police Misconduct Records

from the your-tax-dollars-hard-at-work-hiding-stuff-from-taxpayers dept

The battle over public records in California continues. A new law made records of police misconduct releasable to the public, kicking off predictable legal challenges from law enforcement agencies not accustomed to accountability.

These agencies believe the law isn't retroactive. In essence, they think the passage of the law allows them to whitewash their pasts by only providing records going forward from the law's enactment. None other than the law's author, Senator Nancy Skinner, has gone on record -- with a letter to the Senate Rules Committee and the state Attorney General's office -- stating the law applies retroactively.

This has been ignored by the state AG, who has stated in records request denials that he believes the law can't touch pre-2019 misconduct files. This is exactly what agencies challenging the law want to hear. Unfortunately for them, they've just been handed a loss by a California court.

A Contra Costa County judge on Friday refused to block public access to records of police misconduct that occurred before California’s new transparency law took effect, the first ruling in a string of police-backed lawsuits filed across the state.

Judge Charles Treat said it seemed unlikely the suing law enforcement unions would prevail on the merits while dumping the unions' requested injunction. He pointed out the new law has no impact on past misconduct. All it does is make those records available to the public.

“If it was illegal in 2018, it’s illegal in 2019,” Treat said. “It doesn’t change the legal principles applicable to anyone’s conduct.”

This was said in response to the unions' argument that the release of old records would introduce new liabilities for officers. The availability of records may make it easier to sue officers, but it doesn't change the fact they were always potentially liable for misconduct. It just used to be a lot easier to hide this misbehavior from the public.

The impact of this bench ruling is muted by Treat blocking his own unblocking for another ten days to allow the union to appeal his decision.

There's a chance this ruling will be overturned, despite Sen. Skinner's clarification. And it's not the only legal battle being waged over the new transparency. Multiple agencies are suing in multiple counties and it's probably going to take a trip to the state Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

These agencies may state publicly they believe the law isn't retroactive, but their actions say something different. The Inglewood PD went so far as to get permission from the city council to shred all pre-2019 misconduct records prior to the law's enactment date. As a local attorney points out, why would they have bothered if they felt the law would only affect records generated after January 1, 2019?

First Amendment and police misconduct attorney Matthew Strugar predicted the unions’ challenge will ultimately fail.


Cities, too, had expected SB 1421 to disclose existing records, Strugar said. “Why was Inglewood running its shredding machines 24/7 before the New Year?” he asked.

It's a question no cop or city legislator in Inglewood wants to answer. Thanks to their cooperative effort, the likelihood of the PD being sued over unreleased misconduct is almost nil… easy to do when there's nothing left to sue over.

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Filed Under: california, foia, nancy skinner, police discipline, public records, retroactive, transparency

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  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 6:38am

    But for the evidence, we are clean, clean, clean

    "It's a question no cop or city legislator in Inglewood wants to answer. Thanks to their cooperative effort, the likelihood of the PD being sued over unreleased misconduct is almost nil… easy to do when there's nothing left to sue over."

    Seems to me that there is plenty to sue over. What law, other than their own internal fidgeting, gave them permission to destroy public records? The records don't belong to them, they belong to the public.

    Now it may be correct that the destroyed records might never be recovered (though there may be a backup of at least some of them somewhere (court cases, etc.) the fact that they were destroyed might allow someone in need of misconduct records to be allowed to presume the worst, and they should use that presumption to discredit everything any public employee from Inglewood has to say because the evidence was destroyed illegally.

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