Appeals court rules county does not have to release computer tapes of crime records
CALIFORNIA — A state appellate court in late July overturned a lower court ruling that required the county of Los Angeles to release computer tapes of criminal offense information.
The tapes had been sought by Robert Westbrook, who runs a business that sells criminal background information to the public. He sought to obtain a computerized compilation of data from the Municipal Courts of Los Angeles County that included the name, birth date and zip code of every person charged with a crime, the case number, date of offense, charges filed, pending court dates and case disposition.
Westbrook sued the county in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1989, arguing that the county’s refusal to sell him computer tapes containing the information violated its duty to provide meaningful access to public records.
The county said that Westbrook was entitled to computer tapes containing a defendant’s name, charges, case number and disposition but no other information, including a defendant’s birth date and zip code.
The trial court ruled in May 1992 that although it had concerns about the loss of privacy that would result from giving private companies access to the information, Westbrook was entitled to copies of the entire computer tape on a monthly basis and at a reasonable cost.
In June 1994 the county appealed to the Second District Court in Los Angeles. It argued that the lower court’s decision violated the state constitutional right of privacy and the Penal Code.
An appellate court panel reversed the lower courts’s ruling on July 29. It found that under the penal code aggregate criminal history information may be released to the public only “upon showing of a compelling need.” The public has access to individual criminal offender record information.
The court found that there was a qualitative difference between obtaining information from a specific docket or on a specified individual and from information on every person who has been charged with a crime. It noted that if the county had not compiled the computer records Westbrook would have no interest in obtaining it. “It is the aggregate nature of the information which makes it valuable; it is the same quality which makes its dissemination dangerous,” the court said.
Westbrook said he will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
(Westbrook v. Los Angeles County; Media Counsel: Lawrence Washor and Laura Wesely, Los Angeles)