A&A: Sheriff’s office denies access to 2004 arrest documents saying too much time has elapsed

Q: I recently requested information pertaining to a 2004 arrest of a man by the Sheriff.  I was told by their Discovery Officer that my request would be denied because the records are so old and I’m no longer entitled to the information under the Public Records Act. She cited 6254 f(1) and (2) which I understand entitles me to certain information (bail, arrest time, location etc.) She also mentioned a case entitled Kuzar which denies information past a certain time period has elapsed. Is this accurate?

A: The availability of police records is governed by Govt. Code section 6254(f). That section defines both the records that law enforcement agencies may withhold from the public and what information it must extract from its records and provide to the public. Among the records exempt from disclosure are “records of . . . investigations conducted by. . . or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local police agency . . . .” There is no temporal limitation on this exemption: it applies equally to ongoing and closed investigations. Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 337 (1993).

The information required to be extracted from such records upon request basically falls into four categories:

(1) incident and witness information that need be disclosed only to the victim and his or her insurance agency;

(2) arrest information;

(3) calls-for-assistance and dispatch information; and

(4) contact information for arrestees and victims as long as such information will not be used for commercial purposes. ( Please read the section to see the specifics of the information that must be disclosed.) There are exceptions for information the disclosure of which would interfere with an ongoing investigation or endanger a witness.

However, as the sheriff’s office represented, these disclosure requirements apply only to contemporaneous records. County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, 18 Cal. App. 4th 588 (1993). It is unclear for how long past the date of arrest a record is considered “contemporaneous.” But it is probably a matter of days or weeks, rather than years.

That being said the exemption is discretionary. The sheriff can release the information, subject to some limits contained in the California Penal Code, if it so chooses (or if you can convince them to). But they are not required to do so.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.