Q: I’m involved in a research project on the history of the city in which I live. To ensure the accuracy of my research, I have requested general information from the police department on several criminal cases from the 1970s and ’80s.
This information pertains to the who, what, when, where, etc. of the cases I’m researching. Based on my reading of Government Code Section 6254(f), the information I’m requesting is not investigatory in nature and is fair game under the California Public Records Act.
Moreover, all of the cases I’m researching were covered by the local media during previous decades. Nevertheless, the police department has denied my request on the grounds that it does not pertain to contemporaneous police activity, and is therefore not subject to disclosure.
To support this denial, they cited the case of County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar), 1993, 18 CalApp. 4th, 588.
Please let me know if the police department’s rationale for denying my request is legitimate. It’s my understanding that public-information requests are not time sensitive, but perhaps there’s something I don’t know.
A: Unfortunately, there is a temporal limitation on the release older, otherwise non-exempt (i.e., non-investigatory) police records. In the case you mention, the California Court of Appeal has held that law enforcement agencies are only required to disclose information related to “contemporaneous police activity.” County of Los Angeles v. Sup. Ct., 18 Cal.App.4th 588, 599 (1993).
Although the court does not outline any particular test on what the outer time limits are for the release of such information, it does suggest that where the arrestee is in custody, or,
if not in custody, the arrestee is still under investigation and/or may be charged (or already has been charged) with a crime, that would constitute “contemporaneous police activity.”
Id. at 595-96.
Cold or closed cases from the 1980s probably would not be considered “contemporaneous” under this standard.
That said, you may be able to access police reports and other information about these cases through court records, if there were any related criminal proceedings.
There is a First Amendment right of access to court records and proceedings, both civil and criminal. Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court, 6 Cal. App. 4th 106, 111 (1992).
Thus, even if the records, or any information from those records, are exempt from disclosure when requested directly from the police department, you should be able to
access and review anything filed with the court, unless a particular document has been properly sealed (which requires that a high standard be met on the part of the party requesting the document be sealed).
And as far as I know, the First Amendment right of access contains no “contemporaneous” requirement.