Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputies Not Exempt From Public Records Law

Numerous courts have ruled that California law enforcement agencies across the state must comply with the 2019 police disclosure law — one of the last holdouts was also asked to comply on Wednesday.

(CN) — The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office will have to get with the times as an appellate court panel on Wednesday said they are not exempt from a 2019 California law that makes police misconduct records available to the public.

A union representing Ventura County Sheriff’s deputies argued that California’s Senate Bill 1421 should not apply to records generated before the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. The union argued any records on police misconduct, use of deadly force and other disciplinary files before that date were off limits because state lawmakers did not specify if the law would apply retroactively.

Ventura County Judge Henry Walsh agreed with the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff’s Association’s argument, but the decision was an outlier. Despite numerous court decisions that found SB 1421 would apply to older police records, Walsh blocked the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office from the state law.

A three-judge panel from the Second District Court of Appeal on Wednesday said in a unanimous opinion the California Legislature passed the law to promote disclosure despite when the misconduct took place.

“The Legislature also was aware when it enacted SB 1421 that it would be applied to pre-January 1, 2019 records,” wrote Associate Justice Steven Perren in the 8-page opinion. “By enacting SB 1421 without restricting its application to post-January 1, 2019 records, conduct and incidents, the Legislature expressed its intent to allow retroactive application.”

The union argued that SB 1421 eliminated an officer’s privacy rights for records that involve actions before 2019. But the appellate panel said government agencies are still able to redact records for confidential medical, financial or other information. The panel says these provisions written by the Legislature undercuts the union’s argument.

“To the contrary, the safeguards protect the officer’s privacy when such protection is warranted,” Perren wrote.

He said the Legislature intended to give the public access to “instances of egregious peace officer misconduct.”

“The Legislature has determined the public’s right to discover such misconduct generally overrides privacy concerns,” he added. Perren said the law does not suddenly attach new “legal consequences to or increase a peace officer’s liability for conduct” that happened before the law went into effect.

The panel’s decision does not come as a surprise to Litigation Director Glen Smith with the First Amendment Coalition. The group filed an amicus brief arguing Walsh’ decision was an exception when held up to other cases that took up the same question.

“The opinion confirms what we always believed to be true,” Smith said. “That’s the way every other court in California has ruled. The decision means that the real work now begins.”

Ventura County Public Defender Claudia Bautista said the decision demonstrates the need for a strong appellate court to uphold legislative measures.

“For two years, we have been hampered by lack of public access to these records of what the court describes as ‘egregious’ misconduct,” Bautista said in an email. “Today’s decision gives us expeditious access to the information we need to do our job.  We vindicated an important public interest that promotes transparency and accurate media reporting.”

Ventura County and the sheriff’s office both say they “take no position regarding the merits of this appeal or the claims and arguments made by any other party hereto and intend to comply with the law, however it is construed.”

The Ventura County Deputy Sheriff’s Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Their legal counsel deferred to the union for all comments.

Senior Deputy Public Defender Michael McMahon argued before the panel on behalf of the public defender. Attorney Kelly Aviles argued before the panel on behalf of Los Angeles Times Communications, LLC, The Associated Press and Scripps NP Operating, LLC, publisher of the Ventura County Star.

“Unfortunately, for the past two years Ventura has remained the single black hole in California with regard to police transparency due to the trial court’s erroneous ruling,” Aviles said in an email. “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has now dissolved the injunction and the public will finally have access to these important records.”

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