Investigation of police misconduct can be kept confidential
CALIFORNIA–A city may keep confidential the findings made in an investigation into the alleged misconduct of one of its police officers, a California state appeals court in San Diego ruled in late August.
The decision overturned an earlier ruling granting the The Press- Enterprise of Riverside access to internal reports on a Hemet police officer’s alleged rogue investigative activities.
While a city has no privilege to withhold such reports on the basis of their pertinence to litigation, the Fourth Appellate District Court held, it may withhold police personnel and investigatory records under California law.
The newspaper first learned of the internal investigation of Sergeant Chuck Steadman after the officer sent by fax to local school officials a list of students whom he believed to be involved in the use or sale of drugs. Steadman’s memo, which was circulated to other persons, asserted also that a deputy sheriff knew of the drug use but did nothing about it because a student had a photograph of the deputy smoking marijuana and had threatened to publicize it.
Steadman’s memo prompted the city to investigate him for improper use of the city fax machine, improper investigation on county property and misuse of his police status to obtain confidential information from the school. The sheriff’s deputy implicated in the memo sued Steadman and the city for defamation.
In late April the newspaper sought the results of the city’s investigation of Steadman, and, upon the city’s denial, brought suit in Superior Court. The lower court found the records to be discoverable, subject only to redaction to protect the privacy of some persons mentioned in the reports.
Reversing the decision of the lower court, the appeals court held that the standard for determining disclosure was not governed by California’s Public Records Act, whose language requires disclosure only of specified information about arrests, arrestees, and complaints to which law enforcement personnel respond. Rather, falling under the general exemption for law enforcement files, the records may be disclosed only under the more rigorous standards of California’s Evidence and Penal Codes. Those statutes, taken together, call for the disclosure during litigation of otherwise privileged police records upon a showing of “manifest necessity.”
“The seeker of information” under these statutes, the court opined, “must show that the information sought is relevant to the subject matter of the lawsuit–not simply that he wishes to obtain it.”
(City of Hemet v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: Sharon Waters, Riverside)