A&A: Criminal case files and the Public Records Act

Q: My son was attempting to defend a friend and himself from some attackers and in the process was charged with assault. He went to an arraignment hearing yesterday and was shown the police report, witness statements and other documents. He was rushed through the process without the public defender or city attorney seeing a clear picture of what really happened. We are now trying to obtain copies of these documents and keep running into a brick wall by the police department, public defenders office and city attorney. Does my son have to hire an attorney to obtain documents that are relevant to him and his case? Do you have any advise on how he can obtain records on himself?

A: Since your son is a criminal defendant, he is entitled to certain records and evidence held by law enforcement through the criminal discovery process. The provisions that apply to access to such records are outside our area of expertise, since this service focuses on the public’s, rather than the individual’s, access to records. Your son may want to consult with a legal aid service, such as Central California Legal Services, to see if they can provide guidance as to how to obtain the records your son needs to defense his case. http://www.centralcallegal.org/ccls/index.php

The Public Records Act, which governs the public’s access to records in California, generally exempts investigatory records from disclosure. Gov’t Code § 6254(f). However, basic information about an incident must be disclosed, such as “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 and age 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 § 6254(f).

Bryan Cave 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.