The California Supreme Court Bars Disclosure Of Police Disciplinary Records

In January 2003, the Copley Press, which publishes the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, learned that the San Diego County Civil Service Commission had scheduled a closed hearing in which a County deputy sheriff was appealing a termination notice. Copley requested access to the hearing, but the Commission denied the request.

After the appeal’s completion, Copley filed several requests under California’s Public Records Act asking for disclosure of any document filed with, submitted to, or created by the Commission concerning the appeal. The Commission withheld most of the records, including the deputy’s name, taking the position that the records were exempt from disclosure under the Act.

After a series of decisions by the lower courts, the case wound up in the California Supreme Court. The Court upheld the Commission’s refusal to produce the documents.

The Court noted that “the right of access to public records under the Act is not absolute. In enacting the Act, the Legislature, although recognizing this right, also expressly declared that it was mindful of the right of individuals to privacy. Thus, the express policy declaration at the beginning of the Act bespeaks legislative concern for individual privacy as well as disclosure.”

The Court then turned to an exemption under the Act that provides that certain “peace officer and custodial officer records and information obtained from these records are confidential and shall not be disclosed in any criminal or civil proceeding except by discovery pursuant to the evidence code.”

Copley argued that the statute only applied to “criminal or civil proceedings,” not to the proceedings of the Civil Service Board. The Court rejected Copley’s arguments. The Court found that the “criminal and civil proceedings” phrase provided an exemption to the general policy of non-disclosure of peace officer records. The Court commented that “there is little point in protecting information from disclosure in connection with criminal and civil proceedings if the same information can be obtained routinely under the Act. It would be unreasonable to assume the legislature intended to put strict limits on the discovery of police personnel records in the context of civil and criminal discovery, and then to broadly permit any member of the public to easily obtain those records through the Act.”

Copley next argued that the Commission’s records were not covered by the exemption because they were neither “personnel records” nor “records maintained by any state or local agency.” The Court was unimpressed with the argument, holding that “Copley’s argument fails to take into account the nature of the Commission and its role in disciplinary proceedings for peace officers in San Diego County. Because the Commission, a department of the County, has been designated to provide the appeal that the officer’s employer is required by law to provide in connection with taking punitive action, it is reasonable to conclude that for purposes of applying the relevant statutes in this case, the Commission is functioning as part of ‘the employing agency’ and that any file it maintains regarding a peace officer’s disciplinary appeal constitutes a file ‘maintained by the officer’s employing agency’ within the meaning of the exemption.”

Copley’s last argument was that “public scrutiny of disciplined officers is vital to prevent the arbitrary exercise of official power by those who oversee law enforcement and to foster public confidence in the system, especially given the widespread concern about America’s serious police misconduct problems.” The Court concluded that there were competing policy considerations that might favor confidentiality, such as protecting complainants and witnesses against recrimination or retaliation, protecting peace officers from publication of frivolous or unwarranted charges, and maintaining confidence in law enforcement agencies by avoiding premature disclosure of groundless claims of police misconduct. The Court concluded that it was up to the Legislature, not a court, to balance the various competing policy considerations.

Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court, 2006 WL 2506369 (Cal. 2006).

This article appears in the October 2006 issue