Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, who for years has refused to disclose information in concealed-weapons records, must make the applications and permits available for public inspection, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday in Santa Ana.
The 4th District Court of Appeal's decision was based on a state Supreme Court ruling six weeks ago in a similar case involving Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.
"The surprise would have been if the court had ruled the other way," said Assistant County Counsel Arthur C. Wahlstedt Jr., who represented Gates in the case.
Gates Expected Ruling
Gates said he, too, expected the ruling, in view of the Supreme Court decision in the Los Angeles case but would not have any comment until he had discussed it with county attorneys.
The concealed-weapons records will not be available immediately. The case in which the issue arose was sent back to Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Polis because the appellate court found that there might be reason for Polis to delete portions of the records in a closed hearing.
Both the Los Angeles County lawsuit and the one in Orange County that led to Tuesday's ruling were filed by CBS Inc., which said it wanted the information for a series of investigative reports by KCBS-TV on the issuance of concealed-weapons permits. CBS Inc. claims that Gates and Block were violating the state's Public Records Act.
In Los Angeles County, the Sheriff's Department is only one of numerous law enforcement agencies authorized to issue concealed-weapons permits. In Orange County, all the municipal police departments have given that authority solely to the county sheriff. More than 400 permits existed in Orange County when the CBS lawsuit was heard two years ago.
CBS Wanted to Explore
CBS said it wanted to explore whether Gates exercised discretion in issuing or denying the permits. That, CBS lawyers said, requires reviewing the applications as well as the permits themselves.
Gates argued that the information in the records was provided by the applicants in confidence and was part of a law enforcement investigatory file, which made it privileged information. He also claimed that public disclosure could mean an invasion of privacy for the permit holders and could even endanger their safety. Further, he claimed that public disclosure would discourage others from being forthright in making applications.
Judge Polis, after a lengthy hearing in 1984, sided with Gates.
In the appellate court opinion filed Tuesday, Justice Sheila P. Sonenshine cites the Supreme Court decision in the Los Angeles County case. It says the sheriff must prove that not making the records public would "clearly outweigh the public interest served by disclosure."
The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, found that none of the arguments for refusing to disclose the records outweighed the public's right to know in the Los Angeles case. The Santa Ana appellate court agreed in the Gates case.
Chief Justice's Opinion
"Public inspection of the names of license holders and the reasons the licenses were requested enable the press and the public to ensure that public officials are acting properly in issuing licenses for legitimate reasons," Bird wrote. Sonenshine quoted that remark in her opinion in the Gates case.
The 4th District opinion was unanimous. Justices John K. Trotter and Edward J. Wallin concurred with Sonenshine.
The controversy arose in Orange County in the late 1970s, when a political adversary of Gates, private investigator Preston Guillory, accused Gates of issuing concealed-weapons permits to his political allies and campaign contributors. Gates denied the accusation but refused to disclose who had received permits.
Guillory, of Santa Ana, was denied a permit by Gates in 1977. His own lawsuit against Gates over the issue is still tied up in federal court.
Sued After Access Denial
CBS filed its lawsuit after it was denied access to the records during its attempt to follow up on Guillory's charges.
Wahlstedt said that right now the sheriff's options "would appear to be limited." But he pointed out that because the state Supreme Court will soon have new members--with Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin being voted out in the November election--it might be feasible to file a new appeal with the state Supreme Court.