A judge has ordered the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to pay legal fees to The Times in litigation over the release of identities of officers involved in shootings, finding that the issue was a matter of public interest.
Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ordered the department to pay nearly $173,000 in attorney's fees incurred over a year and a half of litigation in a California Public Records Act lawsuit filed by The Times in 2009. The newspaper had sued after the department denied a request for the names of deputies involved in three fatal shootings.
The Times' suit is one of at least three recent cases in which Southern California law enforcement agencies or their unions contended that the officers' names were not public record, citing safety issues and arguing that it was protected personnel information.
In his ruling Monday, Chalfant wrote that the information sought by The Times was "an important right affecting the public interest."
"The disclosure provides a significant benefit to the general public," he wrote, noting that court intervention "proved necessary as the Department was unwilling to make the deputies' identities known, and The Times had no direct pecuniary interest in the disclosure."
Chalfant had first ordered the names released in March of last year, but his ruling was appealed by the deputies' union, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. The litigation came to an end in June when the state Supreme Court declined to hear the union's final appeal.
The judge wrote in his ruling that even though the union was the "cause" of much of the legal costs, the department was required to pay the fees because the union is not a public agency.
"The Department invited [the union] to intervene. Now it has to bear the cost of that invitation," he wrote.
Rich Brouwer, an attorney for the Sheriff's Department, said that the cost of the lawsuit ballooned after the union's involvement, and that he believed the deputies' association should shoulder the cost. He said that given Chalfant's order, unless a higher court rules otherwise, the department would release names of deputies involved in critical incidents.
The union's attorney, Richard Shinee, said the deputies' association joined in the litigation after the Sheriff's Department suggested it get involved. He said that he believed Chalfant's underlying ruling was wrong, and that the public's right to know "takes a back seat" to the officers' rights or safety.
The appellate court said the union had presented no admissible evidence that the deputies' safety had been in jeopardy.
Kelli Sager, who represented The Times in the suit, said the union had substantially driven up the cost of the litigation by getting involved belatedly, after Chalfant's initial order. "The ultimate cost the taxpayers will now bear is three times what it would have been," she said.
The Times had sued to find out the identities of officers involved in the following incidents:
•Deputy Sergio Reyes fired two shots on July 5, 2009, killing 16-year-old Avery Cody Jr., who deputies said was armed with a .38-caliber revolver that he raised at Reyes.
•Deputies Gonzalo Galvez and Michael Carpenter shot and killed Woodrow Player Jr. on July 10, 2009, during a pursuit in Athens. A cellphone was found near Player's body; a revolver was recovered from his car.
•Deputy Kevin Brown shot and killed Darrick Collins, who was unarmed, during a pursuit of robbery suspects on Sept. 14, 2009. A black cellphone was found beside Collins' body.