News

Lawsuit targets Becerra over police secrecy

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra addresses reporters in Sacramento. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

State Attorney General  Xavier Becerra, who has filed 40-plus lawsuits against the Trump Administration, has been a darling of many California Democrats. Now he finds himself in a court fight against some of his admirers.

Becerra is refusing to disclose officer-misconduct and use-of-force records prior to Jan. 1, 2019, saying pending court cases require that they be kept secret until the cases are settled. He also questioned whether disclosure should apply retroactively before Jan. 1.

The new law “lifts the veil of secrecy that has made California the only state that denies all public access to records on law enforcement misconduct.” — Nancy Skinner

The San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition (FAC), which is often aligned with media interests, has filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court to force disclosure of the records under provisions of SB 1421, by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley.) Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill last September, and it was hailed at the time as a major breakthrough in forcing government transparency.

“As the highest law enforcement officer in the state, the attorney general has an obligation to not only comply with the California Public Records Act, but to send the right message about transparency to police departments across the state,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the attorney general has done neither. By denying public access to these crucial files, he has given a green light to other departments to disregard the new law,” Snyder said.

Sen. Skinner says her bill “lifts the veil of secrecy that has made California the only state that denies all public access to records on law enforcement misconduct. SB 1421 opens access to records on use of deadly force and on the job sexual assault or dishonesty, such as witness interference or evidence tampering.”

Skinner said her bill would “rebuild public trust in law enforcement and end the practice of officers who may have had repeated incidents bouncing from agency to agency undetected.”

“When it comes to disclosing a person’s private information, you don’t get a second chance to get it right.” — State Attorney General’s office

Skinner’s office says SB 1421 lists these offenses by peace officers that would be disclosed:

–Discharge of a firearm, or use of force that results in death or great bodily injury.

— On the job sexual assault, including coercion or exchanging sex for lenience.

–Dishonesty in reporting, investigating or prosecuting a crime.

The attorney general’s officer is having none of it.

“Historically, under state statute, peace officers have had a significant privacy right in their personnel records. (Pen. Code, § 832.7.) Several cases have recently raised the issue whether SB 1421’s amendment to section 832.7 requires the disclosure of records relating to conduct that occurred before January 1, 2019, which is SB 1421’s effective date. Given the ongoing proceedings, at this time, we are prepared to disclose only records beginning January 1, 2019. (Gov. Code, § 6255.).

“When it comes to disclosing a person’s private information, you don’t get a second chance to get it right,” the A.G.’s office told Capitol Weekly in a prepared statement.

An estimated 15 court cases are pending.

A Contra Costa judge has ruled that the law can be applied to past cases. That ruling in the police records transparency allowing release of records prior to Jan. 1 has been appealed by the state, and the appeals court has issued a stay barring release of the records.

“The unambiguous language [in the statute] demonstrates the operation of SB 1421 has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created.” — Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff

On Tuesday, in a related case, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that law enforcement records on shootings and use of force must be released to the public, even if the incidents occurred before Jan. 1. The ruling is likely to be appealed.

“The unambiguous language [in the statute] demonstrates the operation of SB 1421 has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created — it applies to all records,” Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff wrote, the L.A. Times reported.

Meanwhile, defying the attorney general, the state Department of Consumer Affairs has made public a case involving a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy accused of stealing thousands of bullets and selling them to a gun shop in exchange for weapons.

In the latest California-vs.-Trump fights, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Becerra have announced their suit to block Trump’s emergency declaration to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The action, announced Monday, marks the 46th suit against the Trump Administration, and 15 other states — and San Francisco –have joined in the legal fight.

And on Tuesday, the Trump administration announced it was rescinding a $928 million grant that had been given to California for high-speed rail development — a move sure to spark yet another round of legal challenges.

In the transparency case, Becerra’s critics have accused him of refusing to release the records because he fears the wrath of politically powerful police organizations.

Reaction across the state has been mixed.

While a number of police agencies have agreed to provide records, the city of Berkeley — among others — says it does not have to release police use-of-force records that resulted in death or great bodily injury from incidents before 2019.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: