Accessing police reports
Q: I have been refused a copy of a police report. It is a complaint filed against myself. I have the complaint number. I filed a request with the police along with a check for the correct amount. I received a response back saying I wasn’t allowed to have a copy with NO explanation why.
A: If you submit a written request under the Public Records Act for a copy of the complaint, the PRA requires that the police department respond within 10 days and, if the department claims the complaint is exempt from disclosure, it must tell you in writing why it is not giving you a copy by citing an exemption in the PRA that it claims allows the department to withhold the information.
Here is a link to a sample PRA request letter on FAC’s website:
With respect to access to complaints filed with police, the California Supreme Court, in a case called Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 227 (1993), said that the PRA does not require the police to provide actual copies of police reports (and, presumably, complaints), but must provide certain information in those documents unless an exception applies.
Here is what the relevant provision of the PRA requires the police department to tell you: “the time, SUBSTANCE, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the agency and the time and NATURE of the response thereto, including, to the extent the information regarding crimes alleged or committed or any other incident investigated is recorded, the time, date, and location of occurrence, the time and date of the report, the name, age, and current address of the victim …, the FACTUAL CIRCUMSTANCES surrounding the crime or incident, and a GENERAL DESCRIPTION of any injuries, property, or weapons involved.” Gov’t Code sec. 6254(f)(2).
As you can see from the capitalized words, the police department has to provide you most of the information in the complaint. For that reason, may police departments will provide copies of complaints and police reports, redacting out information that they may be prohibited from disclosing. For example, there are certain crimes (generally sex crimes) for which the PD cannot release the name and/or address of the victim. In addition, if you have been accused of committing a crime and may be a defendant in a criminal action, the Penal Code prohibits the police from telling you the address or telephone number of any alleged victim or witness. Penal Code sec. 841.5.
The only other exceptions to the requirement in section 6254(f) that the police department provide you this information is if the police department determines that releasing the information “would endanger the safety of a person involved in an investigation or would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation.”