A nonprofit organization that promotes free speech recently filed a lawsuit against California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for his refusal to release police misconduct records under a new state law. Although the new police transparency law took place on January 1, Becerra refuses to provide records involving police misconduct that occurred before the law took effect.
According to Senate Bill 1421, the bill requires “certain peace officer or custodial officer personnel records and records relating to specified incidents, complaints, and investigations involving peace officers and custodial officers to be made available for public inspection pursuant to the California Public Records Act.” Despite the fact that the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) requested records from the California Department of Justice under SB 1421 on January 4, the department refused to disclose the records in a response sent on January 28, prompting FAC’s lawsuit on Thursday.
“As the highest law enforcement officer in the state, the Attorney General has an obligation to not only comply with the California Public Records Act, but to send the right message about transparency to police departments across the state,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Unfortunately, the Attorney General has done neither. By denying public access to these crucial files, he has given a green light to other departments to disregard the new law.”
“Historically, under state statute, peace officers have had a significant privacy right in their personnel records. Several cases have recently raised the issue whether SB 1421… requires the disclosure of records relating to conduct that occurred before January 1, 2019, which is SB 1421’s effective date. Given the ongoing proceedings, at this time, we are prepared to disclose only records beginning January 1, 2019,” Becerra’s office said in a statement emailed to The Sacramento Bee. “When it comes to disclosing a person’s private information, you don’t get a second chance to get it right.”
In a prepared statement, Senator Nancy Skinner, who authored SB 1421 and represents the 9th District in Berkeley, asserted that the law does apply retroactively.
“Some agencies seem to feel that since releasing a record is an irreversible decision, they shouldn’t have to do so until all court actions on SB 1421 are resolved. However, California law doesn’t work that way,” Skinner said in her statement. “Unless the state Supreme Court issues an injunction, which it has chosen not to do, SB 1421 is the law and covers pre-2019 records as the Legislature intended. The only agencies that can legitimately hold records are those agencies in the few counties where lower courts have issued a stay.”
The new law was passed in response to the national controversy over fatal police shootings of unarmed minority men, but it applies only when officers are found to have improperly used force or discharged firearms, committed sexual assaults on the job, or have been dishonest in official duties.