On Jan. 1, 2019, a new law went into effect in California that requires law enforcement agencies to release the records of officers involved in, among other things, use-of-force cases that result in death. Unfortunately, some law enforcement brass are pushing back against the law, using a semantical argument to defend their noncompliance. That noncompliance has resulted in a lawsuit being filed by two of the state’s biggest newspapers.
The Sacramento Bee reports that when Senate Bill 1421 went into effect at the beginning of the year, both the Bee and the Los Angeles Times filed public records act requests to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, asking for the records of any deputies involved in misconduct or who fired their weapons while on duty dating back to Jan. 1, 2014. Their requests were denied by Sheriff Scott Jones’ department.
The Sheriff’s office said it would not release the records until it had “clear legal authority” to do so. It said in a letter to both papers that “peace officer personnel records are protected by law” and argued that the new law “was not expressly made retroactive.” Jones believes he only has to release records of incidents that occurred after the law went into effect.
In response, the Bee and the Times jointly filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court, accusing Jones and his department of being “mistaken” in their argument against the law, and pointing out that other opponents of SB 1421 have conceded that the requirements of the law are retroactive.
San Francisco-based First Amendment attorney Karl Olson, who filed the suit on behalf of both papers, told the Bee, “We strongly disagree with it, and their position is inconsistent with the legislative intent in passing SB 1421.”
The lawsuit notes that when passing the bill, the state legislature declared: “The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.”
The Bee and the Times were seeking five years worth of records related to investigations of deputies who were involved in sexual assault or dishonesty; records involving the use of firearms and incidents involving use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury.
In response to a request from the Bee for comment, Seriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Shaun Hampton said in a letter: “Senate Bill 1421, codified as Penal Code section 832.7, was not expressly made retroactive.”
“The issue of retroactivity is currently being litigated and the Sheriff’s Department will be monitoring judicial determination of Penal Code section 832.7 as amended. Without clear legal authority to release such records, it remains illegal for us to do so, and subjects the Sheriff’s Department and the County to considerable potential liability,” Hampton wrote.
Imagine that. A law enforcement agency hiding the truth behind a legal technicality.