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Becerra v. Superior Court for the City and County of San Francisco

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  1. Freedom of Information

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 35 media organizations

Court: Court of Appeal, State of California, First Appellate District, Division Three

Date Filed: Sept. 18, 2019

Update: In an opinion issued on Jan. 29, 2020, the California Court of Appeal held that the Attorney General must disclose all records in its possession that fall within SB 1421’s disclosure provisions, even if the records relate to another agency’s employee. The court explained that the statute clearly requires disclosure of all records and the legislative history only supports that interpretation. The court also held that the “catch-all exemption” of the CPRA and other CPRA exemptions may apply to records that are subject to disclosure under SB 1421, but it concluded that, in this case, the government did not show that the public interest served by nondisclosure of the records at issue clearly outweighs the public interest in their disclosure.

On Feb. 28, 2020, attorneys for the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 28 media organizations filed a letter in support of the First Amendment Coalition’s request to depublish Part D of the California Court of Appeal’s decision. That section of the decision allows agencies to rely on all but one of the exemptions in the California Public Records Act to withhold records covered by SB 1421. The letter argues that the court’s interpretation of the new law “cannot be squared with the text of the statute or the Legislature’s clear intent.” It also states that allowing agencies to use the exemptions will make it more difficult for the public to access law enforcement records.

Background: In January 2019, California’s SB 1421 went into effect, giving the public the right to access records of police misconduct and uses of force through California Public Records Act requests.

The California Department of Justice is seeking to limit the scope of the bill and require law enforcement agencies to provide only information about their own employees, arguing that records within its possession need not be disclosed if they relate to another agency’s employee.

The First Amendment Coalition and KQED filed a CPRA request seeking records released under SB 1421, such as incidents of firearm discharges and sustained disciplinary records of police misconduct. The trial court ordered the attorney general to release all records maintained by the agency, prompting the attorney general to file a petition for a writ of mandate with the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District, Division Three, seeking to reverse the trial court’s order.

Our Position: The appeals court should uphold the lower court’s ruling and deny the attorney general’s petition, as SB 1421 clearly pertains to records within the possession of the Department of Justice that relate to another agency’s employee.

  • The court must interpret the CPRA to ensure public access and government transparency; SB 1421 should primarily be read in favor of access.
  • The public interest in disclosure overwhelmingly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.

Quote: “The Department’s interpretation of the CPRA and S.B. 1421 disregards the plain text and purpose of the statutes and undermines the public’s interest in understanding how government agencies conduct the people’s business. S.B. 1421 intended to open specific law enforcement records kept secret for decades. To permit the State’s chief law enforcement agency to keep such records secret … would fundamentally undermine the pro-transparency statutory scheme set out by the Legislature.”