Legal Battle for Police Misconduct Records Continues in S.F. and Ventura County

A state appeals court denied the attorney general's bid to block access the state maintains on local police departments, but the appeal could be renewed in the coming weeks. The Ventura County public defender also filed an appeal related to the state's new police transparency law. (iStock/Getty Images)

A California appeals court denied on Friday Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s bid to withhold police misconduct and shooting files the state maintains on local police and sheriffs, finding the move was premature but could be refiled in the coming weeks.

The State Attorney General’s Office argued in its July 2 appeal that a new state transparency law — opening access to records of sexual assault, dishonesty and serious use of force by California peace officers — should only require release of cases from officers’ employing agencies.

The case began early in the year with complaints filed by the First Amendment Coalition and KQED against the attorney general in a San Francisco court, arguing that the office should provide all the responsive files it possesses.

In May, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the First Amendment Coalition and KQED and ordered the Attorney General’s Office to negotiate a schedule for producing documents.

The state Department of Justice then provided records from two internal investigations involving former state agents. It has an unknown number of files on police shooting and misconduct cases concerning local departments that the attorney general is arguing should not be released.

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The attorney general may renew his appeal, the appellate court's order issued Friday says, after the San Francisco court issues a formal ruling. The next hearing in that case is set for July 18.

Meanwhile, a state appeals court in Southern California has been asked to toss out a recent Ventura County ruling that blocked access to officer misconduct and shooting records created before 2019.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh’s June 19 ruling is “a rogue outlier perpetuating an ongoing miscarriage of justice,” says a petition filed Friday by Ventura County Public Defender Todd Howeth.

Walsh’s decision that releasing pre-2019 records would constitute an illegal “retroactive” application of the new law was in contrast to decisions in several other trial courts around the state, as well as a published state appeals court opinion.

The public defender’s petition asks California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal to vacate Walsh’s ruling.

The filing argues that the ruling ignored precedent established earlier this year by a San Francisco-based appeals court. The March 12 opinion rejected identical arguments brought by law enforcement unions in Contra Costa County as “without merit.”

“Respondent court was not operating in a vacuum nor writing on a blank slate,” the public defender’s filing says. “The Ruling makes an embarrassing mockery of stare decisis (adherence to precedent) and is viewed as ‘disingenuous’ by the media, the legal community, and the general public who seek timely access to these records.”

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