FAC, media coalition notch important victory in growing police transparency fight

By Clara Hogan | First Amendment Coalition | 
A coalition of media groups led by the First Amendment Coalition has prevailed in the latest battle in the expanding legal fight over California’s landmark police transparency bill, Senate Bill 1421.
On Friday, Judge Charles Treat of the Contra Costa County Superior Court denied a preliminary injunction sought by police unions that would have barred the release of police misconduct records created before January 1, 2019, the date SB 1421 went into effect.
Enacted last year, SB 1421 reversed decades of official secrecy surrounding police misconduct by requiring police departments to release records relating to police shootings, sexual assaults, and acts of dishonesty.
Judge Treat held that SB 1421 applies to all misconduct records, irrespective of when they were created. As a result, the judge ruled, the records must be released. However, Treat delayed the release of records for 10 days so that the unions can appeal the order if they wish.
Judge Treat’s order is the first substantive ruling on a question that has fueled a pitched legal battle in courts across California.
“FAC is grateful that Judge Treat saw through the unions’ dubious legal arguments,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “When the Legislature decided at long last to open up police misconduct records, they plainly didn’t discriminate between new records and old records. The public is entitled to know about police misconduct, whether it occurred in 2005 or 2019.”
Various police unions are arguing to courts across California that the Legislature only wanted to open up records about post-2019 police misconduct. In December, a police union attempted to get the California Supreme Court to embrace its interpretation of the bill. A FAC-led media coalition opposed that effort, which the high court denied—but left it to lower courts to sort out the key legal question.
Since Jan. 1 police unions in at least eight counties have obtained court orders preventing the release of pre-2019 records. FAC and various media groups are opposing these efforts. Judge Treat’s ruling is the first to grapple with the legal issues and to come down on the side of transparency.
Joining FAC in opposing the police unions’ effort in Contra Costa County were the Bay Area News Group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, KQED and Investigative Studios. You can read the coalition’s key legal arguments here. The ACLU of Northern California also opposed the unions’ effort, submitting its own briefing.
Representing FAC and its media partners in Contra Costa County are James Chadwick and Tenaya Rodewald of the Sheppard Mullin law firm.

Elk Grove News is a member of the First Amendment Coalition. 

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