In September, Santa Clara was hit with a lawsuit over the City’s refusal to provide arrest information, even though the information is in the monthly arrest logs published on the City’s website. No hearing is currently scheduled in the case.
The lawsuit was brought by Roland Austin, represented by Los Angeles attorney Brent Borchert who has brought several police records lawsuits. Austin is a plaintiff in some of these cases.
Austin asked for a list of all arrests for DUIs during June 2020 and received this response: “This information is local summary criminal history information and is confidential.”
The Weekly subsequently made its own request for arrest logs from May, June and July of 2020 and received the same answer.
The City says it has no comment, due to the pending litigation, except to say that Santa Clara “disagrees that Mr. Austin is entitled to the records requested under Government Code 6254(f).”
Austin’s attorney, Borchert, recently won a Sebastopol case almost identical to Santa Clara’s over arrest records.
In that case, the judge wrote in his tentative ruling, that the request “comports directly with the information which must be disclosed” by law.
California’s Public Records Act (Government Code § 6254(f)) requires law enforcement agencies to make arrest records public, with certain exceptions that would apply to the City’s website as well.
The law requires agencies to disclose names: physical description: date, time, location and circumstances of the arrest; bail set; time of release or where the person is being held; and outstanding warrants and parole or probation status.
SB 1421 Put Spotlight on Police Records
Police records have gotten a lot of attention since 2018’s Senate Bill 1421 passed, directing California law enforcement agencies to release records about officer misconduct and use of force.
The Bay Area News Group (Mercury News) won a settlement in December with the San Jose Police Department over the release of use of force records. The original request was made in 2018 and SJPD answered that providing the records would take until 2023.
The Mercury’s attorney, Palo Alto-based Tanaya Rodewald, a media and First Amendment attorney and co-author of the First Amendment Coalition’s Police Transparency Guide, calls SB 1421 an important milestone on the road to police accountability.
“For decades, California was one of the most secretive states when it came to information about police officers’ conduct and misconduct in carrying out their duties,” said Rodewald.
“For the first time in decades,” she said, “SB 1421 peeled back part of the decades-long veil of secrecy concerning officer uses of force and misconduct.”
Since the law passed, “Critical issues coming to light include officers who are fired from one police department subsequently being hired by another department, problematic or illegal uses of force, falsified evidence entries, and other problems.”
But many agencies have been “incredibly slow” in complying, said Rodewald.
“Some agencies have been taking years to provide the records, if they provide them at all. In other cases, agencies have used overly narrow interpretations of the law to avoid providing records. We have represented media organizations in litigation against agencies,” but “such litigation shouldn’t be necessary.”
Police unions have actively tried to block SB 1421 compliance with lawsuits — about 20, according to Rodewald. They’ve also tried to block access to pre-2019 records. Both efforts have been unsuccessful.
SB 1421 isn’t enough and there’s still work to be done, said Rodewald. One is a deadline to stop agency foot-dragging. Another is expanding the types of records subject to the law. Finally, loopholes need to be closed.
“For example,” she said, “if an officer resigns before an investigation into misconduct is completed, this shouldn’t mean that the investigation is dropped and the misconduct is swept under the rug.”
Disclosure laws have benefits for public agencies, too, said Rodewald. “Concealing these records “undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.”
See the full document here: police public records complaint 2020.
For those readers wondering how these police records can both be “published on the City’s website” and be something that the City “disagrees that Mr. Austin is entitled to”, the answer is that the records published on the City’s website only contain information about arrests within the last 30 days, and Austin filed a request for records that were older than that at the time of request. While there are interesting conversations to be had about privacy and data retention, the author’s framing of the lawsuit as being over something that is already available is negligent at best and manipulative at worst.
Thanks Andy for clarifying nuance between data available on web vs. requested in lawsuit. Regarding your last comment, I am inclined to believe it is manipulative. Don’t know about this author, but just based on SV Voice reputation
I realize I’m about two years late in commenting but I wanted to respond to the other two comments here. The author is not being “manipulative” in making reference to the requested information being “published on the City website.” It is true that the information was not available on the City website at the time that I requested it, or there would have been no need to ask for it. The point is that any information, once having been published on a City website, then becomes public information regardless of any exemption in Government Code § 6254(f) that might have applied. Here, though, there was no exemption to be asserted by the City in the first place since Government Code § 6254(f) specifically states that the basic arrest information requested is to be disclosed without exception. The problem is that records clerks are not properly trained on what is public information and what is not and so 80+ percent of them will ask who you are (not relevant to a CPRA request) and then say that pretty much any information requested in non-public and not disclosable. And the real problem then becomes when I file a suit and the City’s lawyers try to find any exemption in the law that they believe could conceivably have applied. “Jeopardizing the investigation” is a favorite go-to excuse, even though the perpetrator has long since gone to trial and the case resolved. A few of the smarter more-ethical attorneys will simply realize the mistake, direct the PD to do a better job, and give up the information. The less ethical ones run up a huge bill for their client…. and then blame me for making too many CPRA requests.
I guess this would be more of a question than a reply to Mr Austin. Why do you have so many simular cases? What is your goal here?