First Amendment Coalition v. Bonta

On February 14, 2019, represented by Michael Risher, the First Amendment Coalition sued the California Attorney General for violating Senate Bill 1421 (“SB 1421”), California’s landmark police transparency law that mandated disclosure of records about police shootings, significant uses of force, and serious forms of misconduct.

FAC took legal action because the Attorney General’s office had refused to disclose records otherwise covered by SB 1421 simply because they were created by another agency, such as a police department under investigation by the California Department of Justice.

In an amended petition filed March 5, 2019, FAC was joined by KQED, which was represented by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and had made a similar request that had also been refused.

On January 29, 2020, the Court of Appeal agreed with FAC and KQED that the Department of Justice was required to disclose records covered by SB 1421 regardless of whether it created the records. The court also held that an agency may withhold records covered by SB 1421 under the so-called catchall exemption of the California Public Records Act, which sometimes allows withholding on the ground that a request imposes an undue burden. However, the court found that the government had not justified invoking the catchall exemption.

After the case returned to the trial court, the Attorney General produced some records but withheld others based on laws found in the Penal Code, Government Code, and Unemployment Insurance Code. The trial court ruled in favor of the government on those issues. 

After FAC and KQED sought review, the Court of Appeal issued a decision on December 28, 2023, holding that when the Attorney General has subpoenaed records as part of an investigation into a local law enforcement agency, the Attorney General must disclose those records on request to the extent they are covered by SB 1421, notwithstanding statutes that might otherwise make the records confidential, because SB 1421 supersedes statutes that directly conflict with its mandate of police transparency.

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