California AG Ordered to Release Police Misconduct Files

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sits for an Oct. 10, 2018, interview with The Associated Press, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s Justice Department will begin releasing police misconduct records created before Jan. 1, 2019, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Friday, under a new police transparency law that had garnered the ire of police unions across the state.

“Transparency and accountability in policing are fundamental components to building safe and secure communities for all Californians,” Becerra said in a statement. “With this court’s ruling, my office now has much of the clarity we have sought in our efforts to appropriately follow the letter of the law. At the California Department of Justice, we know that the work does not stop here, and we will continue our efforts to strengthen the trust that must exist between peace officers and those they serve.”

The announcement comes on the heels of a tentative ruling issued by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer earlier on Friday ordering Becerra to release misconduct records to the First Amendment Coalition, a free-speech group based in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.

The group sued Becerra in February after his office refused to disclose misconduct records held by the Justice Department pre-dating Senate Bill 1421, which was enacted on Jan. 1. The law for the first time granted access to personnel records on police shootings, excessive uses of force that resulted in death or serious injury, and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers while on duty.

Becerra partly justified denial of pre-2019 records by citing multiple lawsuits filed over Senate Bill 1421 by police unions around the state. Those suits claimed the bill pertains only to records created after Jan. 1 and that disclosure of older records would violate officers’ constitutional and statutory privacy rights.

State court judges overwhelmingly rejected this argument, and the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco called it “without merit” earlier this year.

Ulmer cited the appellate decision in his own decision Friday. And he rejected arguments that records must be requested from the law enforcement agencies that employ the officers in question and that the balancing test set out in the California Public Records Act allows Becerra to refuse to disclose the records.

“Each of the attorney general’s three grounds for refusing to disclose the records is unavailing,” Ulmer wrote.

Ulmer ordered counsel for both parties to meet and confer on the form of the court order before a final ruling is issued. A hearing is set for June 21 in San Francisco.

“Judge Ulmer’s order sends the clear message that the Attorney General is not above California law,” David Snyder, First Amendment Coalition’s executive director, said in a statement Friday. “Like every other police agency in the state, his department must produce records of police misconduct covered by SB 1421 and can no longer delay.”

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