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California court upholds public’s right to view police misconduct records

Jordan Cunningham working to hold police accountable for sexual misconduct

California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.
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California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.

In a ruling that may open up police misconduct records statewide, a state appeals court has rejected an effort by the Walnut Creek Police Officers’ Association to keep records created before 2019 sealed from public view.

The ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal states that the argument being presented by the officers’ union “is without merit” and that records created before Senate Bill 1421 took effect this year are subject to disclosure.

Police unions and some law enforcement departments in California have refused to release records covered under the law, arguing there is no provision that makes the statute retroactive.

The court disagreed, finding that a request for records made since the law took effect requires agencies to turn over records generated in the past that they possess.

The ruling has a direct effect on a lawsuit The Sacramento Bee filed against Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones in January with the Los Angeles Times seeking records dating back to 2014. The suit follows a request from both news organizations for records of deputies involved in shootings or accused of misconduct in the past five years.

Jones’ department rejected the requests, saying it had such records but would not release them until it had “clear legal authority to release such records.”

Karl Olson, a San Francisco attorney representing The Bee, said Monday that the ruling requires the department to hand over such records.

“The law is very clear that when there’s a court of appeal decision every trial court in the state of California has to follow it,” Olson said. “And so there is a published Court of Appeal decision that is directly on point and it would be binding on any trial court, including the one in Sacramento.

“I’ve already informed the Sacramento County counsel’s office, which is representing the sheriff. I’ve informed them of the publication of this case and asked them to do the right thing, to avoid the need for further expenditure of taxpayer dollars to fight the public’s right to know and to keep the public in the dark about serious incidents involving law enforcement officers.”

The county counsel’s office was closed Monday for the Cesar Chavez holiday and no one responded to a request for comment. The sheriff’s department had no immediate comment.

Since the law took effect Jan. 1, news organizations and others have filed public records act requests seeking access to such records, and Olson said he believed there may be as many as 20 lawsuits statewide involving such efforts.

The Bee’s lawsuit is pending, with the first hearing in that case scheduled for June 7.

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