A&A: How Can I Access Records From The California Department of Corrections Regarding High-Profile Offenders?

Q:  I need to obtain information from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) regarding several high-profile offenders, some of whom are deceased, for a project I am doing on several high-profile murder cases. All of the offenders are or were on Death Row at one point in time and several are deceased. What information can I obtain?

A: The records you’re looking for from CDCR are likely available through the use of the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”).  Under the CPRA, public records — which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code section 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure. The CPRA applies regardless of the physical form or characteristic of the record, which means that information retained in an electronic format must be made available in any electronic form in which the agency keeps the information. Gov’t Code section 6253.9(a). You can read about the CPRA, and find a sample text for drafting a request at the First Amendment Coalition’s website here.

You should know, however, that the CPRA contains a broad exemption for police investigatory records, which do not have to be disclosed. Specifically, Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f) exempts “[r]ecords of complaints to, or investigations conducted by, or records of intelligence information or security procedures of…any state or local police agency, or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local police agency, or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local agency for correctional, law enforcement, or licensing purposes.” This exemption applies to investigatory records even after an investigation has concluded. Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 337, 356 (1993). Some of the records you seek may fall within this exemption.

You may also find court records of the jurisdiction where the offenders were convicted useful. Any documents that ended up on a public docket (which is most documents filed in a court case) are publicly available, although you may incur some minimal costs in obtaining them. Once you figure out what court the person was convicted in, you can contact the clerk of that court (you can usually find a telephone number online) for more information on how to request the records.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.