Sacramento sheriff must pay legal fees in Bee’s fight to get deputy records, judge orders

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office must pay more than $100,000 in legal fees to The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times in its court fight to hold onto deputies’ discipline records, which the newspapers requested under the Public Records Act, a Sacramento judge ruled Wednesday.

The media organizations successfully sought the release of files detailing sheriff’s deputies’ misconduct. Sacramento County sheriff’s officials had earlier said the agency would not release the records and in September argued against paying the newspapers’ legal costs to fight for access to them, saying the fees were not “necessary.”

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steven M. Gevercer disagreed in his four-page opinion Wednesday, saying the legal costs mounted as sheriff’s officials slow-walked the records’ release.

“The Court rejects Respondent’s argument. Fees spent litigating this case were necessary in light of ... its decision not to release the records,” Gevercer wrote, saying sheriff’s officials ignored deadlines and a judge’s order in June to produce the records “forthwith.”

Sheriff’s officials deferred to the Sacramento County Counsel’s Office, which was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Previously secret disciplinary files had been trickling out from Sheriff Scott Jones’ office since The Bee won a May court order seeking access to the documents under Senate Bill 1421, the police records law that took effect Jan. 1.

The law requires disclosure of files related to officer-involved shootings and use of force that causes death or serious injury, as well as records involving officers found to have engaged in sexual assault or dishonesty.

Before SB 1421, state law shielded officers’ personnel files from the light of day unless a court ordered their release stemming from civil or criminal cases.

By late September, The Bee had obtained 18 files involving 12 officer-involved shootings, the firings of three deputies and the suspensions of two others documented over nearly 6,400 partially and heavily redacted pages released along with nearly 68 hours of redacted video and audio files.

Sheriff’s officials in September tallied 91 incidents in which deputies discharged weapons and another 35 in which a deputy used force that resulted in death or serious injury.

At a September court hearing over the newspapers’ lawsuit, Deputy County Counsel James Wood said producing the requested records was a “time-consuming and complex” process, saying sheriff’s officials were “trying to get these records out as fast as possible.”

But many other files remain in Sheriff’s Office control, said attorney Karl Olsen, who represents the Sacramento and Los Angeles journalists. Olson will receive $103,775 in fees and costs, Gevercer ordered Wednesday.

Olson said he was “pleased” with the court’s ruling, but expressed frustration with department officials and what he said is a reluctance to surrender disciplinary documents required by law.

“I think that we had to do a lot of work to pry records from the Sheriff’s Office and we’re still engaged in efforts to secure compliance with the courts,” Olson said Wednesday.

“Overall, it’s been disappointing, the pace at which the sheriff’s department has dealt with the records under (Senate Bill) 1421. I think their attitude is to delay, delay, delay.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.