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Officer's disciplinary appeal subject to release under records law

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information    

Officer’s disciplinary appeal subject to release under records law

  • A California appellate court ruled that a law enforcement officer’s disciplinary appeal record is not a personnel record and therefore must be disclosed to a Public Records Act requester.

Sep. 24, 2004 — A law enforcement officer’s disciplinary appeal hearing record cannot be shielded from the public under the personnel record exemption to the California Public Records Act, a state appellate court ruled last week.

The records dispute began when The Copley Press, Inc., publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune and nine other daily newspapers, requested disciplinary appeal documents for a state peace officer under the California Public Records Act.

At the request of the peace officer, the San Diego Civil Service Commission redacted his name from the records before it disclosed them and Copley sued. The trial court ruled that the personnel records exemption to the California Public Record Act protected the records. Copley appealed.

The California Court of Appeal reversed. Justice Alex C. McDonald wrote for the court that the statutory definition of personnel records is “any file maintained under that individual’s name by his or her employing agency ,” and that although the commission had conducted the disciplinary appeal, it was not the officer’s employing agency. Furthermore, the commission could not show that the information in the disciplinary appeals record was mined from the employing agency’s files, he wrote.

Although much of the information in the disciplinary appeal record duplicated information in the officer’s non-discloseable personnel record, McDonald said that the personnel record public record exemption “does not cloak information in those records with a mantle of absolute privilege.” Instead, he said, it contemplates that “the same information derived from independent sources is not imbued with confidentiality.”

McDonald said the ruling furthers the public’s right to know about the operation of its government, specifically the police discipline system.

(The Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: Guylyn R. Cummins, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich; San Diego) RL

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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