Return to the Weblog
Quote of the Day - It used to be that a fellow went on the police force when everything else failed, but today he goes in the advertising game. - Kin Hubbard
Supreme Court Denies Newspaper Access To Names Of Disciplined Police Officers
Newspapers have no right to review records of disciplined police officers, according to a recent court ruling in the case of Copley Press v. County of San Diego. The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper wanted to attend a termination appeal hearing involving a deputy, but the San Diego Civil Service Commission denied access to the newspaper. The newspaper then sought access to the deputy's file, but the Commission redacted large portions of the file, and later produced most of the rest of the file, but with the deputy's name redacted.
According to the documents, the officer was terminated due to "the deputyís failure to arrest a suspect in a domestic violence incident despite having probable cause to do so, failure to prepare a written report documenting the incident, and dishonesty in falsely indicating in the patrol log that the victim bore no signs of injury and the suspect was 'gone on arrival.' "
As a consequence of the Deputy's appeal, the Commission and the now former Deputy agreed to a mutual stand-down. The Deputy agreed to withdraw the appeal and the Commission agreed that the Deputy's records would show resignation by mutual agreement and remove the untruthfulness charges.
The newspaper wanted the name of the Deputy and full disclosure, so it sued. The trial court denied the request, and the court of appeal reversed, opening the files to the newspaper. The Supreme Court upheld the trial court's decision allowing the Commission to keep the Deputy's name private.
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that the California Public Records Act precludes the release to a newspaper the name of an officer involved in a disciplinary proceeding. The Court was careful to exclude civil or criminal discovery proceedings from its ruling, limiting it's application to requests by newspapers. The Court noted that the Commission could have elected to release the disciplinary records in response to public statements made by the Deputy, but here the Deputy kept quiet.
The Court also ruled on the newspaper's First Amendment arguments, dismissing them with the determination that the Supreme Court of the United States would not have allowed access to the officer's name. The California Supreme Court cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases, including Houchins v. KQED, which ruled, "There is no constitutional right to have access to particular government information, or to require openness from the bureaucracy. The publicís interest in knowing about its government is protected by the guarantee of a Free Press, but the protection is indirect. The Constitution itself is neither a Freedom of Information Act nor an Official Secrets Act."
The case was a veritable Who's Who from the newspaper industry, with many filing amicus briefs, including the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Hearst Corporation, the Associated Press, the Bakersfield Californian, the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, Inc., Bloomberg, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, California First Amendment Coalition, Californians Aware and Professor Erwin Chemerinsky.