A law mandating greater transparency for law enforcement officer personnel records, signed by former Governor Jerry Brown in September of last year, has survived a legal challenge in the California Supreme Court and is free to be implemented.
At issue was the scope of the law, introduced as Senate Bill 1421 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner. The Los Angeles police union wanted to limit the law to incidents which occurred after the effective date of the law, January 1, 2019 but the Court found no support for that argument in the plain language of the statute.
The Supreme Court ruling affirms the February 19, 2019 decision of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff that “denied the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs’ injunction request” and scheduled “a temporary seal on LA County police records” to be lifted on March 1, 2019.
According to an article by the Courthouse News Service, “Beckloff wrote in a 9-page order that a new police transparency law applied to all police records and said officers face ‘no new legal consequence’ when their personnel records are released to the public.”
Judge Beckloff wrote, “The unambiguous language demonstrates [the law’s] operation has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created – it applies to all records.”
The union had hoped to block “implementation of the law which they argued violates officers’ constitutional rights to privacy.” The Supreme Court denied the union petition and marked the case closed. The Supreme Court had previously denied “the San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies’ union’s December 18, 2018 petition for emergency court action to block the new law before the new year.”
These rulings are positive news for anyone who has been or might become a victim of police misconduct in California. SB 1421 amends Government Code §832.7 to require the disclosure of police personnel records (subject to certain redactions) relating to certain types of incidents upon a request under the California Public Records Act: (The bullets below are directly from The California Public Agency Labor & Employment Blog).
- Records relating to the report, investigation, or findings of an incident involving the discharge of a firearm at a person by a peace officer or custodial officer.
- Records relating to the report, investigation or findings of an incident in which the use of force by a peace officer or custodial officer against a person results in death or great bodily injury.
- Records relating to an incident in which a sustained finding was made by any law enforcement agency or oversight agency that a peace officer or custodial officer engaged in sexual assault involving a member of the public. “Sexual assault” is defined for the purposes of section 832.7 as the commission or attempted initiation of a sexual act with a member of the public by means of force, threat, coercion, extortion, offer of leniency or any other official favor, or under the color of authority. The propositioning for or commission of any nonconsensual sexual act while on duty is considered a sexual assault.
- Records relating to an incident in which a sustained finding of dishonesty by a peace officer or custodial officer directly relating to the reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime, or directly relating to the reporting of, or investigation of misconduct by, another peace officer or custodial officer, including but not limited to, any sustained finding of perjury, false statements, filing false reports, destruction of evidence or falsifying or concealing of evidence.
SB 1421 was one of two laws Governor Brown signed in September 2018. The second law, AB 748, goes into effect on July 1, 2019 and requires agencies to produce video and audio recordings of “critical incidents,” in response to CPRA requests. Such incidents include the discharge of a firearm at a person by a peace officer or custodial officer, or when the use of force against a person by a peace officer or custodial officer has resulted in death or great bodily injury.
Although the overwhelming majority of California police officers is highly professional, bad apples do exist, and lack of transparency often allows them to stay on the job after misconduct which should be disqualifying. Moreover, police are human and can make critical mistakes in the heat of the moment. When SB 1421 and AB 748 are fully implemented, the public will have greater protection against misconduct and the good officers will know that the public will have greater trust in them because of the transparency.