Sheriff must name deputies who fired guns in shoot-out
CALIFORNIA–In a late January decision, the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff must disclose the names of deputies who fired shots at a private citizen.
In overturning a lower court’s ruling, the appellate court held that, in this case, the public’s interest in disclosure outweighed the deputies’ privacy rights. “In order to maintain trust in its police department, the public must be kept fully informed of the activities of its peace officers,” the court held. “Disclosure is all the more a matter of public interest when those officers use deadly force and kill a suspect.”
The court of appeals also pointed out that the names of the deputies who fired the shots were contained in investigatory reports as well as personnel files. Thus, the sheriff could readily provide the newspaper with the names without disclosing any portion of the deputies’ personnel files.
The case arose from a newspaper’s request for information about a November 1994 shoot-out in which a number of Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department deputies were involved. Five deputies fired their weapons and Robert Curnow, a suspect, was killed. The Sheriff’s Department conducted an internal investigation of the incident and ascertained the names of the five deputies who shot at Curnow. Copies of the investigative reports were placed in each of the five deputies’ personnel files.
In early December 1995, the Santa Barbara News-Press, owned by the New York Times Company, requested that the sheriff disclose the names of the deputies who had fired their weapons. The sheriff denied the request claiming that the deputies’ names were exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act, because the names were part of confidential personnel files and disclosure would invade the deputies’ personal privacy.
The New York Times Company filed a petition to compel release of the names with the Superior Court in Santa Barbara. In August 1996, the court denied the petition and the New York Times Company appealed. (The New York Times Company v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: C. Michael Cooney, Santa Barbara)