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California

O.C. Sheriff’s Department must turn over past records on deputies, judge rules

LOS ANGELES, CA-OCTOBER 27, 2017: Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies stand at attention during t
Law enforcement unions in Los Angeles, Orange and other counties have gone to court in an effort to stop departments from releasing disciplinary and other records issued before a new disclosure law took effect this year.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A judge ruled Thursday that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department must publicly disclose records from shootings, use of force and some misconduct by its deputies regardless of when the incidents occurred.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott denied a preliminary injunction request by the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, which sought to block the department from disclosing records from incidents that took place before Jan. 1, when a new statewide transparency law went into effect.

The decision is the latest victory for media outlets and open government organizations that have opposed similar legal requests by law enforcement unions around the state. Last week, a Los Angeles County judge denied a restraining order sought by police unions representing Los Angeles Police Department officers and L.A. County sheriff’s deputies.

The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs filed an appeal earlier this week but the Los Angeles Police Protective League announced it would not, saying in a statement that “we believe all police agencies should fully comply with the eligible requests for records. Our concern was strictly limited to protecting the privacy rights of officers for records created prior to the effective date of [Senate Bill] 1421.”

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Until the Legislature approved SB 1421 last year, California had the nation’s strictest laws on disclosing police personnel records. The state’s powerful law enforcement unions had repeatedly blocked attempts to make any disciplinary records public, but lawmakers approved the transparency law amid a heightened debate over how officers use force and interact with communities of color.

The law covers records of shootings by officers, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers. Proponents of the measure say restricting its reach to records of incidents after Jan. 1 would severely limit the law’s impact and shield misconduct by some officers who remain on the job.

Like other police unions, the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs argued that applying SB 1421 retroactively would violate longstanding legal protections for officer personnel files.

But Scott rejected that in his ruling Thursday.

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“Nothing in the plain language of the statute suggests the Legislature intended to exclude records relating to pre-2019 incidents,” the judge wrote. “If the Legislature intended to make the records ‘available for public inspection’ — but not if they mentioned anything before 2019 — the Legislature would have said so.”

The Times, along with Voice of OC and Southern California Public Radio, argued the disclosure law applied to all records.

Scott’s previous order preventing release of the records remains in effect until March 15 to give the union time to appeal.


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