California Highway Patrol vehicles in Berkeley, December 2014. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
KQED is suing the California Highway Patrol to force the agency to disclose five years of officer misconduct and use-of-force records that a coalition of news organizations requested under the state’s new police transparency law in January 2019.
“For over 16 months the CHP has repeatedly failed to produce all responsive records in its possession, leaving KQED with no choice but to file this action,” the complaint filed Friday in Sacramento County Superior Court said.
The filing late Friday follows a protracted back-and-forth between the agency and coalition of news organizations called the California Reporting Project, which requested records of internal investigations since 2014 that found officers had sexually assaulted members of the public or lied in police reports or testimony.
The coalition also sought internal investigations into officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Police agencies across the state were required to make such records accessible under Senate Bill 1421, which took effect Jan. 1, 2019.
“The power and importance of public documents and government transparency has never been more apparent,” KQED News Executive Editor Ethan Toven-Lindsey said after the suit was filed. “KQED continues to believe that agencies that refuse or unreasonably delay their compliance with this state law must be held accountable.”
It took the CHP 14 months to produce any documents responsive to the news organizations’ public records request.
Those records, produced in March, involve a single disciplinary case. That episode involved a veteran CHP officer, Sgt. Timothy Larios, who resigned in 2015 after investigators discovered he’d had a romantic relationship with a confidential informant.
An internal CHP probe found the relationship compromised a multiagency narcotics investigation and endangered the woman helping to build that case.
The CHP records say Larios was lead investigator in the Shasta Interagency Narcotic Task Force in November 2013 when he met the informant, a woman who had provided information that led to the arrest of two men for possession of marijuana and conspiracy. One of the men was the informant’s former boyfriend.
Text messages included in the internal investigation file show Larios became distraught when the suspect later returned to the woman’s home. The probe found the CHP sergeant falsely reported crimes, including three separate occasions in which he was said to have told Shasta County law enforcement agencies that the former boyfriend was holding the woman against her will.
Larios’ relationship with the woman was exposed after he left a greeting card on her car in August 2014, while the boyfriend was at her house.
"I love you for who you are and want nothing more than to unite as one!" Larios wrote. “Love me!”
Larios later told investigators he had hoped the note would make the former boyfriend think the informant was in love with someone else and leave her alone.
Instead, when the boyfriend discovered the card, he assaulted the woman. She reportedly told him the card was from Larios.
Shasta County sheriff’s deputies responding to the domestic violence incident learned the card was from the CHP sergeant.
The investigation records say Larios admitted leaving the message.
“It's embarrassing,” the documents quote him as telling investigators. “If I had to do it all over again, obviously it would not be done the same way.”
The discovery of the relationship between Larios and the woman led Shasta County prosecutors to dismiss felony charges against the man and his alleged accomplice.
Data extracted from Larios’ personal cellphone showed he had sent and received more than 20,000 text messages with the informant, often while on duty, according to a June 2015 notice of adverse action.
“You disclosed sensitive, operational information from a joint state and federal investigation of a drug trafficking organization” with the informant, the notice said. The woman was ”a person not authorized to possess this knowledge, and one who associated with people directly involved in criminal drug activity.”
That information included Larios sending pictures of himself “in action” during undercover operations. He also shared travel plans and the days he expected to conduct drug buys that were apparently part of the investigations.
The CHP records say Larios called the episode "embarrassing" at the outset of investigators' questioning.
“If I had to do it all over again, obviously it would not be done the same way,” the documents quote him as saying.
The CHP investigation concluded Larios was guilty of an inexcusable neglect of duty, insubordination, dishonesty, willful disobedience, misuse of state property, and “other failure of good behavior.”
Larios retired on June 22, 2015, just days before the CHP moved to terminate him. He had been with the agency for more than 20 years and had received high marks on evaluations until his involvement with the confidential informant.
Larios was never charged with any crimes related to the misconduct.
Last year, he collected $81,822.96 in pension payments from the state, according to Transparent California, a database of public employee salaries and pensions. He has received nearly $350,000 in pension payments since his retirement.
Larios filed a federal lawsuit against the department and individual investigators for illegal search and seizure of personal property, including his cellphone.
Last month, a lower court judge dismissed the suit, which argues the CHP was required to obtain a search warrant to view all the text messages on Larios' cellphone. The case is now pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
While the CHP did release the Larios file, it is unclear how many more responsive records the agency has or when it will produce them.
The CHP reported to the Department of Justice that its officers have shot and killed 23 people between 2014-2019. It has released no records related to those shootings.
The CHP did release a handful of older cases that were outside the timeframe of KQED’s request. The agency previously estimated all SB 1421 records would be disclosed sometime next month.
Dan Brekke of KQED News contributed to this report.
This story was produced by the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state. The project was formed to request and report on previously secret records of police misconduct and use of force in California.