A dangerous bill that blew out of the state Assembly last week with nary a dissenting vote would create a costly public property record exemption for certain privileged law enforcement officials.
Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Feuer introduced Assembly Bill 2299 after an anonymous Internet group publicized the home addresses of more than a dozen members of the Los Angeles Police Department's command staff. "Let's make the protection of officer's families meaningful," the Democrat argued in support of his measure on the Assembly floor.
If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the measure would authorize counties to create a system that would allow law enforcement personnel to redact their names from the property records of their principal residence.
But the bill does not remove just the names of police officers from the real estate records. Prison guards, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys would also be allowed to hide their home ownership. Potentially, this measure could cover thousands of law enforcement officials across California.
What's contemplated here is an unprecedented breach to the integrity and openness of property records. Public access to information about who owns real estate is a fundamental tool of commerce, used for centuries to safeguard property transactions.
The public's access to real estate records has also long played a key role in ferreting out private fraud and public corruption, one reason the California Newspaper Publishers Association opposes this bill.
If individuals could redact their names from property records, then it would be impossible to know who really held title to a piece of property, what they paid for it and whether that title is clean. Does the property that the police officer or judge or prison guard own have a lien against it? Is the officer or judge the subject of a civil judgment and could the property be seized to satisfy that judgment? If names are redacted, could law enforcement officials prevent their estranged wives or husbands from asserting a legitimate legal interest in the property? Could the title company ascertain such information?
Feuer says he's amended the bill to allow names to be revealed pursuant to court orders or criminal proceedings. But that means an estranged wife, for example, or a lien holder would have to file a request in court to get information that is now available without going to court. News reporters seeking information about suspected corruption could not get access to the information at all.
The Santa Clara County assessor, an opponent of the bill, says it would be "cost prohibitive to implement and a nightmare to administer."
Feuer seeks to reduce threats to public officials in their homes an extremely rare event. None of the testimony presented in committee indicated criminals seeking to harm law enforcement officials actually got information about where their targets lived from property records. Most just followed them home from work. In today's information-saturated world, such information is more likely to be captured in a Facebook posting.
The threat posed by public records to law enforcement officials is theoretical. The threat posed by Feuer's bill to public records and public access to them is all too real.