Court tentatively rules against AG Becerra: State must disclose police records

California Attorney General Becerra releases report on policies, practices at Sacramento Police Department

California Attorney General Becerra, Sacramento Chief of Police Hahn and Sacramento Mayor Steinberg hold a press conference on a Calif. Department of Justice report on use of force-related policies and practices within the Sacramento Police Dept.
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California Attorney General Becerra, Sacramento Chief of Police Hahn and Sacramento Mayor Steinberg hold a press conference on a Calif. Department of Justice report on use of force-related policies and practices within the Sacramento Police Dept.

A superior court judge said Friday the issue of whether California’s new police transparency law applies to records created before this year has been decided and ordered state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to turn over records regardless of how old they are.

Becerra has repeatedly said he wanted direction from the courts on whether the law, Senate Bill 1421 applied to records created before Jan. 1. Judge Richard B. Ulmer, said during a hearing that it did. Many local agencies across the state have declined to release records, citing Becerra’s argument

In a tentative written ruling he made final from the bench, Ulmer wrote that the retroactivity question was settled when the First District Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by police unions in Contra Costa County of a county Judge Charles Treat’s February ruling that the law applied to records from past years.

In a brief published ruling last month, the appellate court rejected the appeal, writing the unions’ argument was “without merit.” Those two words, Ulmer said at the Friday hearing, were good enough for him.

Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Rosenberg, representing the justice department, argued that the retroactivity argument wasn’t completely settled because the appellate court did not conduct a hearing on it. But Ulmer rejected that argument.

“They considered the retroactivity (argument) and said it is without merit ” he said from the bench. “The court went out of its way to say (S.B. 1421) is retroactive. I tend to take people at their word.”

“It’s a win,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which along with KQED News sued Becerra after he rejected public records requests for the records. “The attorney general’s stonewalling for five months has been out to a rest. They will have to produce records.”

It was unclear Friday whether the justice department will appeal. A message to its press office was not immediately answered. Ulmer said he expects an appeal to be filed.

The law, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown, makes records of officer-involved shootings and other uses of force resulting in serious injured, and police officer dishonesty and sexual assault public. They had been secret since the 1970s. Since the law took effect Jan. 1, news organizations and others have filed public records act requests seeking access to such records.

The Sacramento Bee has filed more than a dozen requests for records to local law enforcement agencies, including a request to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department seeking records of shootings and other critical incidents dating back to Jan. 1, 2014. The Los Angeles Times filed a similar request.

The Bee and The Times jointly sued the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office in January, charging that the department is refusing to follow the statute that requires the release of records on deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct on duty.

This week, the sheriff’s office indicated that it would begin releasing records to The Bee and others; on Friday afternoon, the agency released files related to one case against former deputy Steve Vasquez for making dishonest statements.

Ulmer did not order the justice department to immediately begin releasing records, instead ordering the lawyers involved to meet and work out a schedule. He scheduled a hearing on their progress for next month.

Production of a voluminous records will be “onerous,” he said, but he also rejected the idea that the justice department could withhold records because it would take too much work to censor and prepare them.

“It sounds to me like you don’t want to do the work at the A.G.’s office,” he said to Rosenberg. He also told lawyers for KQED and the First Amendment Coalition, “you’re asking for a big hunk of records.”

The justice department possesses records both involving its law enforcement officers and from cases where it reviews or investigates the conduct of the officers who work for other agencies, including local police departments.

Ulmer said it shouldn’t matter whether people obtain records from local agencies or the justice department.

“We the people don’t care which taxpayer-funded agency pays the bill” for preparing the records, he said. The purpose is to get them to “mothers and fathers if people shot by the police” who want answers.

This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms across the state, including The Sacramento Bee, to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.
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