SAN FRANCISCO — The public does not have a right to personnel or other records of police officers challenging their discipline or firing, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The San Diego Union-Tribune’s case settled conflicting lower court decisions and drew sharp dissent from one justice who said the California Public Records Act demands disclosure.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the majority in The Copley Press Inc. v. San Diego County Superior Court, said the act adopted in 1968 and repeatedly amended, has a number of exemptions.
“The right of access under the CPRA is not absolute,” Chin wrote.
The newspaper’s owner, the Copley Press Inc., challenged the San Diego County Civil Service Commission’s closure and sealing of the record regarding an unnamed officer who fought dismissal in 2003.
The issue was only listed on a commission agenda as “case No. 2003-0003.”
“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,” the publisher told justices.
But police officers, Chin wrote, are different than other government employees whose hearings challenging sanctions or firing usually are public records. The Legislature clearly favors officers, even forbidding their personnel files to be a part of a civil or criminal case unless the file contains conduct germane to the case.
Everett Bobbitt, attorney for the San Diego Police Officers Association and the San Diego County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, applauded the decision.
An officer’s credibility is always under attack, especially by criminal defendants who have been arrested by them, he said. The decision means police personnel records can be divulged only in a criminal or civil proceeding, and only if they are relevant to a case.
“We’ve been trying to get to this position for the past 10 years,” Bobbitt said.
Chin was joined by Chief Justice Ronald George, and justices Marvin Baxter, Joyce Kennard, Carlos Moreno and Carol Corrigan.
In dissent, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote that the majority “incorrectly holds that every aspect of the deputy’s administrative appeal should remain secret, including even the deputy’s name.”
The majority, Werdegar added, “overvalues the deputy’s interest in privacy, undervalues the public’s interest in disclosure, and ultimately fails to implement the Legislature’s careful balance of the competing concerns in this area.”
It was not the first time the justices held police officers in higher regard than other government employees. In 2002, Chin wrote for the court that First Amendment concerns took a back seat when it came to speech targeting police officers.
At the time, the justices upheld a California criminal law adopted after the 1991 Rodney King beating that made it punishable by up to six months in jail for citizens to knowingly lodge false accusations against police officers. The law was adopted in 1995 after a flood of hostile complaints against officers statewide following King’s 1991 taped beating.
In November, a federal appeals court tossed the law, declaring it an unconstitutional infringement of speech.
In yesterday’s case, the justices said police officers deserve more protection than other government employees to, among other things, shield “peace officers from publication of frivolous or unwarranted charges.”
The Union-Tribune’s attorney, Guylyn Cummins, said “the whole reason behind the case was to safeguard accountability.”
“If you don’t have access to documents, you don’t have accountability,” Cummins added.
The case concerns records of administrative proceedings when an officer challenges a dismissal or sanction. Some police agencies handle such affairs internally, while others, like San Diego County, have created a commission.
The justices said a lower court went too far when it ordered the county’s Civil Service Commission to divulge the record and the name of an officer being fired for misconduct. After a volley of public-records requests, the commission eventually turned over parts of the record but did not release the deputy’s name.
Cummins said the record in the case underscores the need for openness.
The documents showed that the officer was challenging being fired for not arresting a domestic violence suspect. The officer failed to write a report of the incident and falsely wrote in a patrol log that the victim had no visible injury and that the suspect was gone.
The sheriff’s deputy and the county reached an agreement in which the challenge and complaints were dropped and the outcome was listed as “terminated-resignation by mutual consent.”