The California Public Records Act ("Act") requires the disclosure of public records, unless such records are exempt from disclosure. In Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, --- P.3d ----, 2014 WL 2219041, Cal., May 29, 2014 (NO. S200872), the California Supreme Court held that the Act requires the disclosure of the names of officers involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed individual.
Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on December 12, 2010, two City of Long Beach ("City") police officers responded to a telephone call about an intoxicated man brandishing a "six-shooter" on a neighboring property. At the sight of the officers, the man pointed at them an object resembling a gun. The officers immediately fired multiple rounds at the man, killing him. It turned out that the object the man was holding was a garden hose spray nozzle with a pistol grip.
Three days after the shooting, the Los Angeles Times ("Times") filed a request with the City under the Act, seeking the names of the officers involved in the shooting. The City and the officer's union ("Union") resisted disclosure, citing various exemptions to public records disclosure. The Superior Court and the Court of Appeal agreed with the Times that the City must release the names because the exemptions did not apply. The City and the Union appealed to the California Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Decision
The California Supreme Court ("Court") held that none of the exemptions apply and that the names of the Officers must be released. The Court rejected the City and Union's argument, which was based on exemptions that protect privacy and safety, as well as laws that protect the confidentiality of peace officer personnel records.
The Court held that the statues enacted in the wake of the California Supreme Court's seminal Pitchess ruling, which protect peace officer personnel records, did not block disclosure of the officers' names. Disclosure was not blocked because the names were not linked to the contents of the officers' personnel records. Instead, the names were linked to an on-duty shooting. Therefore, the Pitchess statutes were inapplicable.
An exemption regarding the release of personnel file information if the release would result in an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" was also not applicable. The Court held that "when it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer's name, the public's substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer's personal privacy interest." The court held that absent a particularized showing of danger to the officer, such as the danger that may result from releasing the name of an undercover officer, the names of the officers must be disclosed.
Finally, the Court held that the Act's "catchall exemption" did not apply. The "catchall exemption" provides that a record may be withheld if the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosing the record. The court held that the public interest in knowing the officers involved in a fatal shooting is not clearly outweighed by the officer's safety interests, unless the officers can show a "specific safety concern regarding any particular officer." As the City and the Union were only able to present general safety concerns, the catchall exemption did not apply.
What This Means To You
This case illustrates the breadth of disclosure required by the Public Records Act. The names of officers involved in on-duty incidents must generally be disclosed, unless evidence is provided regarding a specific safety concern to the particular officer if the names were released.