Court: AG must turn over po­lice records

The Sacramento Bee - - Front Page - BY THOMAS PEELE

A su­pe­rior court judge said Fri­day the is­sue of whether Cal­i­for­nia’s new po­lice trans­parency law ap­plies to records cre­ated be­fore this year has been de­cided and or­dered state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Xavier Be­cerra to turn over records re­gard­less of how old they are.

Be­cerra has re­peat­edly said he wanted di­rec­tion from the courts on whether the law, Sen­ate Bill 1421 ap­plied to records cre­ated be­fore Jan. 1. Judge Richard B. Ulmer, said dur­ing a hear­ing that it did. Many local agen­cies across the state have de­clined to re­lease records, cit­ing Be­cerra’s ar­gu­ment

In a ten­ta­tive writ­ten rul­ing he made fi­nal from the bench, Ulmer wrote that the retroac­tiv­ity ques­tion was set­tled when the First Dis­trict Court of Ap­peal re­jected an ap­peal by po­lice unions in Con­tra Costa County of a county Judge Charles Treat’s Fe­bru­ary rul­ing that the law ap­plied to records from past years.

In a brief pub­lished rul­ing last month, the ap­pel­late court re­jected the ap­peal, writ­ing the unions’ ar­gu­ment was “with­out merit.” Those two words, Ulmer said at the Fri­day hear­ing, were good enough for him.

Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jennifer Rosen­berg, rep­re­sent­ing the jus­tice de­part­ment, ar­gued that the retroac­tiv­ity ar­gu­ment wasn’t com­pletely set­tled be­cause the ap­pel­late court did not con­duct a hear­ing on it. But Ulmer re­jected that ar­gu­ment.

“They con­sid­ered the retroac­tiv­ity (ar­gu­ment) and said it is with­out merit ” he said from the bench. “The court went out of its way to say (SB 1421) is retroac­tive. I tend to take peo­ple at their word.”

“It’s a win,” said David Snyd

er, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Coali­tion, which along with KQED News sued Be­cerra af­ter he re­jected pub­lic records re­quests for the records. “The at­tor­ney gen­eral’s stonewalli­ng for five months has been out to a rest. They will have to pro­duce records.”

It was un­clear Fri­day whether the jus­tice de­part­ment will ap­peal. A mes­sage to its press of­fice was not im­me­di­ately an­swered. Ulmer said he ex­pects an ap­peal to be filed.

The law, spon­sored by Sen. Nancy Skin­ner, DBerke­ley, and signed last year by for­mer Gov. Jerry Brown, makes records of of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ings and other uses of force re­sult­ing in se­ri­ous in­jured, and po­lice of­fi­cer dis­hon­esty and sex­ual as­sault pub­lic. They had been se­cret since the 1970s. Since the law took ef­fect Jan. 1, news or­ga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers have filed pub­lic records act re­quests seek­ing ac­cess to such records.

The Sacra­mento Bee has filed more than a dozen re­quests for records to local law en­force­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing a re­quest to the Sacra­mento County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment seek­ing records of shoot­ings and other crit­i­cal in­ci­dents dat­ing back to Jan. 1, 2014. The Los An­ge­les Times filed a sim­i­lar re­quest.

The Bee and The Times jointly sued the Sacra­mento County Sher­iff’s Of­fice in Jan­uary, charg­ing that the de­part­ment is re­fus­ing to fol­low the statute that requires the re­lease of records on deputies who fired their weapons or en­gaged in mis­con­duct on duty.

This week, the sher­iff’s of­fice in­di­cated that it would be­gin re­leas­ing records to The Bee and oth­ers; on Fri­day, the agency re­leased files re­lated to one case against for­mer deputy Steve Vasquez for mak­ing dis­hon­est state­ments.

Ulmer did not or­der the jus­tice de­part­ment to im­me­di­ately be­gin re­leas­ing records, in­stead or­der­ing the lawyers in­volved to meet and work out a sched­ule. He sched­uled a hear­ing on their progress for next month.

Pro­duc­tion of a vo­lu­mi­nous records will be “oner­ous,” he said, but he also re­jected the idea that the jus­tice de­part­ment could withhold records be­cause it would take too much work to cen­sor and pre­pare them.

“It sounds to me like you don’t want to do the work at the AG’s of­fice,” he said to Rosen­berg. He also told lawyers for KQED and the First Amend­ment Coali­tion, “you’re ask­ing for a big hunk of records.”

The jus­tice de­part­ment pos­sesses records both in­volv­ing its law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and from cases where it re­views or in­ves­ti­gates the con­duct of the of­fi­cers who work for other agen­cies, in­clud­ing local po­lice de­part­ments.

Ulmer said it shouldn’t mat­ter whether peo­ple ob­tain records from local agen­cies or the jus­tice de­part­ment.

“We the peo­ple don’t care which tax­payer-funded agency pays the bill” for pre­par­ing the records, he said. The pur­pose is to get them to “moth­ers and fa­thers if peo­ple shot by the po­lice” who want an­swers. This story was pro­duced as part of the Cal­i­for­nia Re­port­ing Project, a col­lab­o­ra­tion of more than 30 news­rooms across the state in­clud­ing The Sacra­mento Bee to ob­tain and re­port on po­lice mis­con­duct and se­ri­ous use-of-force records un­sealed in 2019.

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