Obtaining concluded investigative reports
Q: Can an individual obtain through the freedom of Information Act a law enforcement investigation report that has already been concluded? December 8th, 2004 through December 26th, 2004. It was a shooting accident among law enforcement personnel at a shooting range in Northern California.
A: There are two different open meetings laws that apply to law enforcement in California. The Freedom of Information Act, which you refer to, applies only to federal law enforcement — such as the FBI or US Marshal’s Service. The California Public Records Act applies to local law enforcement (city police and county sheriff’s departments). Based on the comment in your email that “individual law enforcement personnel files are not obtainable,” I assume you are dealing with local law enforcement and not the FBI.That is unfortunate because the California Supreme Court has held that the exemption to the California Public Records Act for police investigatory files goes on forever, even years after the investigation is concluded.
That case is Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 337 (1993). This does not prevent a law enforcement agency from releasing the file after the investigation, as the exemption is discretionary not mandatory, but you can’t force the agency to give it up under the California Public Records Act. The result would be different under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which allows federal law enforcement to withhold investigatory files only so long as the investigation is still pending.One other thing you should know: In the Williams case, the California Supreme Court also said that, even under the California Public Records Act, law enforcement cannot put routine records into an investigatory file and then claim they are exempt from disclosure because they are part of the investigatory files.
That means you could argue that the initial incident report of what occurred at the shooting range, which is a routine report prepared whether or not there will be further investigation, is not properly part of the investigatory file and should be disclosed under section 6254(f) of the Public Records Act. Under section 6254(f), certain information in that report must be disclosed, including a description of the factual circumstances surrounding the incident and whether anyone was charged (and, if so, with what), unless release of the information would endanger the completion of the investigation or the safety of someone, which should no longer be the case once the investigation is over.