California court: Old police misconduct records are public

Law enforcement agencies in California must release police misconduct records even if the behavior occurred before a new transparency law took effect, a state court of appeals has ruled. 

The 1st District Court of Appeal's decision released Friday settles for now a debate over whether records created before Jan. 1, when the law took effect, were subject to disclosure. Many police unions have sued to block the records release, while public information advocates argued the records should be disclosed. 

The ruling applies to police agencies statewide, including the attorney general's office, unless another appellate court steps in and rules differently, said David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition.

Interactive map: Who is releasing police personnel files and who is not

"These records are absolutely essential for the public to be able to see what the police departments are doing with respect to police misdoubt," said Snyder, whose group intervened in the case. "These agencies have enormous power over Californians and so transparency of those agencies is absolutely essential in order to be able to hold them accountable." 

A few agencies reversed their prior decision to deny access to old records after the ruling came in. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said he would release records dating back five years after reading the court of appeal's decision, the Sacramento Bee reported. At least four agencies in Contra Costa County, who had fought the retroactivity issue, also began releasing records at the end of last month. Those records showed that police had falsified records and had sex on the job, according to their own internal affairs investigations. 

The appeals court ruled on March 12 but only made the opinion public Friday.

Mike Rains, an attorney for many of the police unions that sued to block the release of the records, said he doesn't see the decision as setting precedent on the merits of the case but that agencies are likely to take guidance from it unless another court rules differently.

His clients do not have an issue with releasing records of misconduct produced after Jan. 1, Rains said, but see the release of old records as a privacy violation.

"Police officers used to have a privacy right," he said. "We don't believe it changes the rights of privacy to those records that were created prior to Jan. 1."

California lawmakers voted last year to require police agencies to release records on police shootings and officer misconduct to the public. Police unions had sought to block old records, with some law enforcement agencies even destroying them. Attorney General Xavier Becerra also declined to release records from his office, saying the intent of the law need to be clarified by the courts. 

The rulings by a panel of three justices said the old records can be released because the action triggering their release -- a request for public information by reporters or others -- occurs after Jan. 1. The justices also noted the release of the records does not change the legal consequences for officers already found to have engaged in misconduct. 

"The new law changes only the public's right to access peace officer records," the justices wrote.

KTVU reporter Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.