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California courts rule in favor of retroactive release of police misconduct records

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The legal battle over a new California law created to shed light on police-involved shootings and misconduct may unfold before the state’s supreme court.

Under SB 1421, which took effect January 1, 2019, records of police dishonesty, investigations of deadly force, findings of sexual assault and other documents can now be made public. Questions of whether the law applies retroactively, to records created before January 1, 2019 but requested after the law went into effect, has resulted in a dispute between transparency advocates and law enforcement officials. In recent weeks, several lower courts have ruled in favor of retroactive application.

In early February, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled in favor of the release of records related to police-involved shootings and misconduct, even if they occured before January 1. Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Charles Treat issued a similar ruling when he denied injunction requests from police unions seeking to block the release of records before January 1.

California attorney Kelly Aviles said those rulings mark key victories for the public.

“SB 1421 is a huge step in California towards transparency for law enforcement,” Aviles said. “These kinds of files have been obscured from public view for so long, and there’s been little to no [oversight] from the public about how agencies respond to misconduct. We know it happens, but we don’t know what happens after it’s reported.”

Many transparency advocates agree with Aviles, citing the law has no bearing on the timing of the release of these records.

“The legislature made a very clear choice when it enacted the law,” Reporters Committee staff attorney Caitlin Vogus said. “It wanted these records to be made public. It shouldn’t matter whether they were created before or after. The public should be allowed to access them.”

A number of police unions sought to block the release of records dated before January 1. The San Francisco Police Union, the Los Angeles Police Union, and a number of others raised their concerns before California courts and stated their disapproval of decisions from Judge Beckloff and Judge Treat, who have rejected union claims that the law cannot be applied retroactively. The unions believe the language of the law is too ambiguous to determine whether old records must be released.

Those police unions include Antioch, Richmond, Concord, Martinez, Walnut Creek and the Contra County and Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs Associations.

There have been nearly unanimous rulings that the law can be applied retroactively in California lower courts, but if the opponents of disclosure are willing to continue fighting, the issue could be placed before the California Supreme Court.

“It’s important for the public to have a seat at the table when talking about law enforcement, how we expect law enforcement to behave, how they’re reacting after there’s been an extreme use of force,” Aviles said. “Hopefully this will lead to meaningful [conversations] and decision-making going forward.”