Attorneys Spar Over Spotlight on California Police Misconduct Records

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – An attorney for a union representing Southern California police officers argued Thursday that lawmakers failed to unambiguously state that a new law opening police misconduct records to the public should apply retroactively.

Under California Senate Bill 1421 – which took effect on Jan. 1 – the public can access previously shielded internal records on police shootings, complaints of sexual assault by officers and internal records on police misconduct.

Brian Ross of Rains Lucia Stern, an attorney for the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said at a hearing that California lawmakers were unclear whether they intended the law to apply to all records, including those that cover past incidents.

“[SB 1421] doesn’t establish a broad scope of retroactive intent,” Ross said. “The Legislature knows how to make statutes apply retroactively and frame laws to make intent clear.”

Ross argued in court filings that the law should only apply to records created after the law took effect.

In January, the California Supreme Court denied the San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies’ union request to block the legislation, sparking a frenzy of legal battles in various counties.

News organizations and police accountability advocates across the state have opposed police unions’ efforts.

On Jan. 18, Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott granted the union’s ex parte request to temporarily block the release of Orange County officer misconduct records.

Kelly Aviles, an attorney for interveners Los Angeles Times, Voice of Orange County and Southern California Public Radio, said in a court brief opposing the union’s motion that blocking access to police misconduct records threatens the public’s relationship with police departments.

“Granting the Association’s petition – even temporarily – would frustrate the intent of the law, which aims to promote government accountability and restore the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement by increasing public access to records of serious police misconduct, officer-involved shootings, and other serious uses of force,” the brief said.

Aviles argued Thursday that lawmakers were clear that SB 1421 applies to all officer records, even if they are not tied to allegations of misconduct.

“[Plaintiffs] don’t want to restrict access to only certain misconduct records, they want to prohibit access to an entire category of records,” Aviles said. “You can’t claim a right to privacy for records that aren’t private.”

Scott granted the media outlets’ motion to intervene in the case, saying at the hearing Thursday that the public has a right to intervene in a case involving public records access.

“Adverse judgment would impede the public’s interest in full disclosure of records,” Scott said, adding that media outlets have “sufficiently direct or immediate interest” in public access.  

Defendants Orange County, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County District Attorney did not take a position on the interveners’ motion, according to Deputy County Counsel Laura Knapp.

When asked by Judge Scott why plaintiffs opposed the motion, Ross said “they are not an indispensable party.”

Ross also said he opposed opening the potential to have interveners request attorneys fees.

Scott said Thursday that the union’s preliminary injunction motion is under submission.

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