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Police Officer Records Deemed Secret

State Supreme Court rules that the public has no right to information about law enforcement personnel involved in disciplinary cases.

September 01, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

The court ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Copley Press Inc., owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune, against San Diego County's Civil Service Commission. In 2003, Copley learned that the commission had scheduled a closed hearing in a deputy's discipline case. The newspaper filed requests under the California Public Records Act seeking information about the deputy and later went to court to force public disclosure. The San Diego Police Officers Assn. intervened. The commission eventually disclosed that the deputy had received a termination order for failing to arrest a suspect in a domestic violence incident and then lied about it, but it refused to release his name. He eventually quit.

Seeking more information, the newspaper went to the Court of Appeal, which said the commission should have released the deputy's name and more details about the case.

The police association appealed, winning Thursday's ruling. The decision, Copley vs. Superior Court, written by Justice Ming Chin, said the county's Civil Service Commission was the equivalent of an employer, and thus required to keep disciplinary matters private.

Chin said privacy rights are important to "protecting complainants and witnesses against recrimination or retaliation, protecting police peace officers from publication of frivolous or unwarranted charges, and maintaining confidence in law enforcement agencies.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar filed the sole dissent, saying the rest of the court had misconstrued the various laws on public records and peace officers.

"The majority overvalues the deputy's interest in privacy, undervalues the public's interest in disclosure, and ultimately fails to implement the Legislature's careful balance of competing concerns in this area," Werdegar wrote.

Guylyn R. Cummins, who represented Copley, said she was disappointed.

She said the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles showed that a police department "that scrutinizes and disciplines itself" out of the public eye "doesn't work."

Several media lawyers expressed hope that the Legislature would pass a law overturning the ruling. But Bobbitt, the lawyer for the police and sheriff deputies, said the police union's lobby has "typically been stronger than the newspaper industry's."

Police unions across the state are elated with the ruling, he said. "Trust me, they will fight any changes to this decision," Bobbitt said.

Times staff writers Matt Lait, Scott Glover and Megan Garvey contributed to this report.

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