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Don't Put a Lid on Vital Information

August 07, 1994

In a democracy, there is a need to balance the public's right for access to information with the government's duty to preserve confidentiality during police investigations and judicial proceedings. For the most part, in California, the state has done a commendable job of recognizing these competing interests and has passed laws that preserve the necessary equilibrium.

However, two recent state court decisions upset that careful balance. The rulings--Williams vs. Superior Court and County of Los Angeles vs. Superior Court--severely restricted public access to crime records.

Now police agencies are obligated to release only the so-called "blotter sheet" data, stating the type of crime and its location. Beyond that, police organizations say no public policy is served by allowing access to investigative records, past or present.

Not surprisingly, most law-enforcement agencies prefer to release information only on a need-to-know basis. But for more than two decades, the California Public Records Act has required law-enforcement agencies to release all non-confidential information.

That same law also includes reasonable and necessary limits on public access to police records. Internal memos, personnel files, information relating to security and records concerning pending litigation continue to be off limits. Also off limits is information about ongoing investigations as well as the identities of victims of hate and sex crimes.

But the two court decisions went even further--too far--to keep information away from the public and the press.

SB 1460, legislation introduced by state Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier), would restore fairness to state law. Other than confidential information, the bill would permit public access to files. Also, the bill would rightly bring state law in line with quidelines in the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In June, the Senate Judiciary narrowly approved SB 1460; the bill now goes to the Senate floor, where the it is the target of heavy lobbying by law enforcement. But lawmakers should resist efforts to kill the bill. SB 1460 aims to restore balance, not upset it.

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