Police personnel records excluded from open records law
CALIFORNIA–Police personnel records are not subject to the California open records act because a state statute limits their disclosure in criminal or civil proceedings, according to a 3-0, early-March decision by the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
The case arose out of a San Francisco newspaper’s attempt to investigate police brutality.
The court of appeal held that a state criminal law makes police personnel records confidential in all contexts, subject to limited exceptions such as for discovery of evidence before a trial. The court concluded that the materials fall within the open records act’s exemption for records made confidential under other statutes.
The court noted that a prior appellate court ruling held that the criminal statute applies only to disclosure of documents in a civil or criminal action. This court of appeal disagreed, however, concluding that the legislature had not intended to limit the criminal statute to trials. The court said there would have been “little point” in making the material confidential in criminal or civil proceedings if the documents were available under the open records act.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian asked the City of Richmond in early 1993 for police personnel records to investigate allegations of excessive force and racially abusive conduct by the police department. The city denied the requests, arguing that the records were available only pursuant to discovery rules at trial.
The Bay Guardian sued the city in late 1993 under the state open records act. The Superior Court of Contra Costa County in Martinez ordered the city in April 1994 to give the court the documents to determine whether they were subject to release. Richmond appealed.
After concluding that the records were confidential and exempt from the open records act, the court of appeal instructed the lower court to set aside its order.
The Guardian has asked the same court of appeal panel to rehear the case. (City of Richmond v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: James Wheaton, Oakland)