A San Francisco judge today ordered California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to begin disclosing police-misconduct files sought by the First Amendment Coalition (FAC)—a victory for government transparency against one of the few remaining police agencies in the state to refuse to comply with Senate Bill 1421, California’s new landmark police transparency bill that went into effect on Jan. 1.
San Francisco Superior Court judge Richard B. Ulmer, Jr. soundly rejected the Attorney General’s claim that he could not release pre-2019 files until the courts decided whether SB 1421 was “retroactive,” i.e., whether it required the disclosure of records created before the bill went into effect. Indeed, that issue has already been resolved, specifically by the California Court of Appeal, which as Ulmer noted is binding on the Attorney General.
Today’s order was tentative, but the judge indicated in court that the final order would be substantively the same.
“Judge Ulmer’s order sends the clear message that the Attorney General is not above California law,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Like every other police agency in the state, his department must produce records of police misconduct covered by SB 1421 and can no longer delay.”
The judge ordered the Attorney General to meet with FAC and its co-plaintiff KQED to work out the specifics of when the department will begin releasing records.
After SB 1421 went into effect on January 1, numerous police unions across the state tried to resist disclosing records by arguing the bill was not “retroactive” and that they only needed to release documents created post-Jan. 1. Those arguments have, one by one, failed.
FAC led media coalitions in courts across California—specifically, Los Angeles County Superior Court, Contra Costa County Superior Court, and the California Supreme Court—to defeat the unions’ arguments. In each instance, courts rejected the unions’ claims, with the LA and Contra Costa courts concluding that the bill does, in fact, apply to documents before Jan. 1 of this year. FAC also filed amicus briefs in similar actions in Santa Barbara County, Ventura County and Riverside County.
Despite the bill’s clear intention and the courts’ clear rulings about its “retroactive” effect, the California Department of Justice, under the authority of the Attorney General, has steadfastly refused to comply with the law. FAC requested records from the department under SB 1421 on January 4, but it refused to disclose the records in a response sent on January 28.
The refusal to comply prompted FAC to file suit in the San Francisco Superior Court on February 21, with KQED later joining FAC. The FAC-KQED suit seeks the release of records regarding four categories of serious police misconduct, which Senate Bill 1421 requires all state and local agencies to disclose.
FAC is represented in this matter by attorney Michael Risher.
For more information, contact:
First Amendment Coalition
Law Office of Michael T. Risher