SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – First Amendment advocates have escalated efforts to force California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra to comply with public records law, filing a petition in state court Thursday demanding his office reveal the identities of law enforcement officers involved in legal settlements.
The petition marks the latest development in the First Amendment Coalition’s ongoing battle with Becerra over the Right to Know Act. Enacted last year as Senate Bill 1421, the law requires the release of public records on police shootings, excessive uses of force and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer ordered Becerra to release the files in May in a ruling that his office appealed.
Now the coalition is taking Becerra to court over settlement agreements involving peace officers and special agents with complaints against them.
According to the petition, First Amendment Coalition legal fellow Glen Smith requested a document under the new law on Oct. 31, 2018, seeking settlement agreements from 2016 through 2018 involving claims against the California Justice Department or its employees. A second records request sought settlement agreements from Nov. 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019.
The department began releasing the documents on a “rolling basis,” but concealed the officers’ names.
One such settlement stemmed from a civil rights lawsuit in which several agents seized Los Angeles resident Paul Renteria’s lawfully registered firearms, handcuffed him for two hours, then took him to jail for 24 hours without a warrant or probable cause, according to his complaint.
The California Department of Justice said releasing the names of the special agents involved in that settlement and others would jeopardize the agents’ safety and ability to conduct covert investigations.
But the First Amendment Coalition contends that the Department of Justice presented no evidence that the Bureau of Firearms agents in the Renteria settlement do any undercover work.
The department used the same justification for redacting the case number and the names of Bureau of Firearms agents involved in a lawsuit that resulted in a $2,000 settlement.
“Releasing the names and other identifying information of these peace officers would compromise their safety as well as their ability to conduct undercover investigations, and in turn damage the Department’s ability to conduct undercover investigations,” Supervising Deputy Attorney General Michelle Mitchell wrote in a response letter to Smith.
The Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The First Amendment Coalition is asking for unredacted copies of the two settlement agreements, or in the alternative, that the Attorney General’s office show why they are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
“A mere assertion of possible endangerment is insufficient to justify nondisclosure of a peace officer’s identity,” the petition states.
Attorney James Wagstaffe of Wagstaffe, von Loewenfeldt, Busch & Radwick LLP in San Francisco and an adjunct professor at UC Hastings, said Becerra’s desire to protect officers’ identities is unsurprising given the difficulty of the job and their vulnerability to attacks.
“There’s a history of wanting to protect the privacy rights of police officers and because they’re in a high-profile job, they can be the subject of exaggerated and false complaints, so I get it,” he said. “People who are public officials can be treated unfairly because people make stuff up about them, but my solution is to fight back with the facts. The public can be very understanding of how hard it is to be a police officer.”
But an officers’ right to privacy is also very narrow. “Generally speaking, the public should have a right to know if police officers are subject of complaints and have a history of improper conduct,” Wagstaffe said. “In an average civil lawsuit, you can have a confidential settlement but not when government is involved. Government officials are not private because it’s our money.”
He said the FAC has a strong chance of prevailing in this case. “The First Amendment is not a hunting license but, as a general rule we try to trust the ability of the public to decide between what’s right and wrong or true and false by more information, not less information,” Wagstaffe said. “I think the FAC’s case is based on transparency and usually transparency wins.”