New Ruling re: Confidential Law Enforcement Records
July 28, 2016
A recent ruling out of the Court of Appeals delves into the issue of which type of law enforcement investigatory records are protected under the Pitchess case. The court ultimately determined that if the record is not generated in connection with an officer’s appraisal or discipline, it is not protected by Pitchess.
The Pitchess case comes from the 1970s, but continues to have an impact on California public records. The basic idea, now codified, is that certain specific records related to officer personnel records and complaints may be disclosed in some cases if relevant, while most personnel records remain confidential.
The latest case, City of Eureka v. Superior Court (Greenson), comes from the City of Eureka (City), where an officer arrested a minor in late 2012. The details around the case were murky and may have implicated a sergeant in inappropriate behavior; it was unclear if the minor “was pushed to the ground, fell to the ground, or just gave up and laid on the ground.” A citizen filed a complaint and the City’s Police Department began an investigation against the officer, though the final outcome found that he did not use excessive force.
A reporter who published several stories on the incident and investigation filed a Public Records Act request seeking the footage; he was denied by the City citing Pitchess protections (recall that the City had opened an investigation into the officer after he was accused of excessive force).
However, the Court was not convinced and determined that just because “officers involved in an incident might face an internal affairs investigation or discipline at some unspecified point in the future does not transmute arrest videos into disciplinary documentation or confidential personnel information and that ‘records about an incident that trigger an internal investigation are not protected personnel records under Pitchess.’” In other words, only records generated as personnel records would be protected. Records that are simply considered in personnel matters are not protected.
Interpreting and balancing Pitchess in the context of public records is an evolving challenge. In this case, the reporter who made the initial records request is entitled to recover his costs on appeal.