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California’s top court limits what government may charge for public records

Justice Leondra R. Kruger stands in her San Francisco office
Justice Leondra R. Kruger wrote the ruling that prevents governmental agencies from charging people for redacting information in public records they’ve requested.
(David Butow / For The Times)

California’s Public Records Act prohibits the government from charging people for the cost of editing out exempt material in public records they’ve requested, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Thursday.

The case stemmed from a request by the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild for public records related to a 2014 Berkeley protest over decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of two unarmed African American men.

Hayward police helped Berkeley in trying to control the protest, and the lawyers guild filed a request with the city of Hayward for public information on its police actions. The city later charged the guild more than $3,000 for the time spent editing out exempt material from digital body camera footage.

The lawyers group sued, winning in the trial court and losing in the intermediate court of appeal.

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Justice Leondra R. Kruger, writing for the state’s highest court, said charging people for redaction costs “would make it more difficult for the public to access information kept in electronic format.”

“Redaction costs could well prove prohibitively expensive for some requesters, barring them from accessing records altogether,” Kruger wrote. “Even if higher costs to the agency mean slower disclosure rates or greater inconvenience to the
requester, these burdens on access are insignificant if the alternative is no access at all.”

Hayward had told the court that a city employee had spent more than 35 hours redacting exempt information to comply with the public information request. Requests for body camera footage challenge government agencies with limited resources, the city argued.

“We do not doubt the point,” Kruger wrote. “Video footage has a unique potential to invade personal privacy, as well as to
jeopardize other important public interests that the [Public Records Act] exemptions were designed to protect.”

The court said it was up to the Legislature to decide whether the “unique burdens associated with producing body camera footage warrant special funding mechanisms.”

Amitai Schwartz, who represented the lawyers guild, said he doubted the Legislature would step in to allow cities and counties to charge hefty sums for law enforcement videos, given the intense controversy over police shootings.

After the court of appeal ruled for Hayward in 2018, “many police departments started charging exorbitant fees to process requests for the police videos, including requiring deposits before they would even start working on them,” Schwartz said. The practice was making police videos “completely inaccessible to the public,” he added.

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The lawyer who represented Hayward in the case could not immediately be reached for comment. Hayward spokesman Chuck Finnie said the city had no comment on the ruling.

Government agencies sided with Hayward in the case, and civil libertarians and media groups, including the Los Angeles Times, argued on behalf of the lawyers guild.

The Berkeley protest was triggered by the failure of grand juries to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown Jr. Protesters later accused Berkeley and Hayward police of clubbing and gassing them.

Garner, 44, died July 17, 2014, after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold while arresting him. A coroner determined his death was a homicide, but a grand jury refused to indict the officer.

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Brown, 18, was shot to death by a white police officer in August 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.


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