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Carlsbad Police Officers Association v. City of Carlsbad

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  1. Freedom of Information

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Court: California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One

Date Filed: Dec. 20, 2019

Update: On May 18, 2020, an appellate court panel reversed the trial court’s order requiring the ACLU and media intervenors to strike their requests for attorneys’ fees and remanded the case to permit the intervenors to seek fees. The appellate court held that the condition imposed by the trial court was “unreasonable and amounted to an abuse of discretion.”

Background: After California passed legislation in 2018 mandating the disclosure of certain police misconduct records, Scripps Media and five other San Diego news organizations, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed California Public Records Act requests with multiple agencies seeking records of officers investigated for police shootings, sexual assault and other misconduct. They specifically asked for records generated before the new law, SB 1421, went into effect in January 2019.

Led by the Carlsbad Police Officers Association, a group of police unions responded by filing a lawsuit against the agencies to keep the records from being released retroactively, prompting the news organizations and the ACLU to intervene.

While a judge ruled in March that the agencies must release the requested records, there remains a dispute over whether the organizations fighting for the records are entitled to attorneys’ fees.

Our Position: California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One, should reverse the lower court ruling that the prevailing news organizations cannot recover attorneys’ fees in a “reverse-CPRA” case, in which a third party is trying to prevent the release of requested documents.

  • Mandatory fee shifting — which allows requesters who prevail in public records lawsuits to recover attorneys’ fees and costs — is critical to ensuring that the public’s right of access to government records is properly enforced.
  • Financially strapped news organizations would be less likely to intervene in similar cases to fight for the public’s right to access records knowing they will be on the hook for costly attorneys’ fees — even if they win.
  • The agencies subject to the records requests should pay the news organizations’ fees under the CPRA, while the unions trying to block the release of the records should pay fees for the news outlets and the ACLU under the state’s private attorneys general statute, which allows parties to recover attorneys’ fees if they prevail in litigation that results “in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest.”

Quote: “Without certainty that those fees will be recovered in successful actions … the press and the public will be disincentivized from pursuing public records that have been wrongfully withheld. … Affirming the trial court’s order would put public records further out of reach for journalists and, accordingly, limit the public’s ability to better understand, analyze, and critique actions of government, contrary to the purpose of CPRA.”