New California Law Opens Police Misconduct Records to Public
Allegations of police misconduct, whether as part of a civil rights lawsuit or as part of the defense in a criminal matter, can be difficult to prove. Past misconduct by the same officer can be powerful evidence in those instances, but law enforcement agencies are often very protective of their own and will typically avoid producing such evidence wherever possible. California lawmakers recently passed a law which will increase the transparency of police misconduct and use of force allegations, allowing citizens to access a much broader range of law enforcement personnel records. Continue reading for details about California’s new open records law, and contact a dedicated California criminal defense attorney with any questions.
California Law Enforcement Agencies Must Now Disclose Records of Police Misconduct, Use of Force
Senate Bill 1421, signed into law by Governor Brown on September 30, 2018, generally makes certain categories of personnel records from state and local law enforcement available for public inspection. Records that must now be disclosed at the public’s request include records relating to the report, investigation, or findings of any of the following:
- Incidents involving an officer’s discharge of a firearm or use of force leading to serious injury or death.
- Incidents where there was a “sustained finding” by a law enforcement agency that an officer engaged in sexual assault involving a member of the public.
- Incidents where there was a “sustained finding” by a law enforcement agency that an officer acted dishonestly in the reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime, or concerning an investigation of misconduct into another officer. Dishonest conduct includes, but is not limited to, perjury, false statements, filing false reports, and the destruction, falsifying, or concealing of any evidence.
While the law does not go so far as to open for inspection all possible claims or complaints of misconduct by officers, it does allow the public to access records concerning incidents where the department or an oversight agency such as an internal affairs board found reason to believe the officer acted inappropriately. Such records are an important tool in curbing police misconduct and will help chip away at the shroud that prevents the public from learning about the bad acts of police officers.
California Supreme Court Considers How Expansive SB 1421 May Be
In a recent case before the California Supreme Court, the Court raised a question as to whether SB 1421 also extends to another type of police misconduct records. The matter involves a lawsuit between the Los Angeles County Sheriff and the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. The issue up for review by the Court involves internal “Brady Lists” kept by law enforcement agencies, which include the officers who have previously been dishonest as part of internal investigations or other court testimony. The Court recently asked the parties to file briefs addressing “[w]hat bearing, if any, does SB 1421” have on the disclosure of officers’ names that appear on an agency’s Brady List. The Court’s decision could have a potentially huge impact on criminal defense matters where a testifying officer has a history of dishonesty in court proceedings.