SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Law enforcement agencies in California must release police misconduct records even if the behavior occurred before a new transparency law took effect, a state court of appeals has ruled.
The 1st District Court of Appeal's decision released Friday settles for now a debate over whether records created before Jan. 1, when the law took effect, were subject to disclosure. Many police unions have sued to block the records release, while public information advocates argued the records should be disclosed.
The ruling applies to police agencies statewide, including the attorney general's office, unless another appellate court steps in and rules differently, said David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition.
"These records are absolutely essential for the public to be able to see what the police departments are doing with respect to police misdoubt," said Snyder, whose group intervened in the case. "These agencies have enormous power over Californians and so transparency of those agencies is absolutely essential in order to be able to hold them accountable."
But despite Snyder's assertion that the ruling applied everywhere in California, an associate city attorney with the city of Bakersfield said a local judge could chose not to apply the law to the Bakersfield Police Department.
A lawsuit brought forward by the Bakersfield Police Officers Association sought to block the release of records that occurred before the law came into effect.
In late March, Bakersfield Judge Eric Bradshaw issued a temporary order prohibiting the city from releasing personnel records until May 2, when a hearing will be held to discuss the matter.
The injunction will remain in effect until May 2, said Associate City Attorney Viridiana Gallardo-King. However, the judge will need to take the 1st District's ruling into consideration when deciding on if the injunction should be permanent or not.
Bakersfield lies under the jurisdiction of the 5th District Court of Appeals, meaning the 1st District's ruling, while persuasive, may not apply.
"I think this case, it potentially shows what the intent was of the law," Gallardo-King said, referring to the 1st District judge's ruling. "The judge will definitely consider it, especially because it's a higher-level court."
California lawmakers voted last year to require police agencies to release records on police shootings and officer misconduct to the public. Police unions had sought to block old records, with some law enforcement agencies even destroying them. Attorney General Xavier Becerra also declined to release records from his office, saying the intent of the law was up for debate in the courts.
For now, one appeals court has appeared to settle it, first ruling on March 12 but only making the opinion public Friday.
The rulings by a panel of three justices said the old records can be released because the action triggering their release — a request for public information by reporters or others — occurs after Jan. 1. The justices also noted the release of the records does not change the legal consequences for officers already found to have engaged in misconduct.
"The new law changes only the public's right to access peace officer records," the justices wrote.