Judge orders Fresno sheriff to withhold records on police shooting cases
A Fresno Superior Court judge has ordered Fresno County not to release any sheriff’s office personnel records related to misconduct or officer-involved shootings that predate Jan. 1, a decision that - at least temporarily - puts local limits upon a new state transparency law.
Judge Jeffrey Hamilton issued the order last week, directing the county to refrain from enforcing Senate Bill 1421 in a way that would result in the release of records retroactively. Hamilton also set a September hearing to take up the matter.
The Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association sought the court action, arguing the new law didn’t indicate it would apply to past records. The association also argued the new law doesn’t supersede the Peace Officer Bill of Rights and other privacy laws.
Eric Schmidt, Fresno DSA president, said the new law outlines public access for records on four matters: officer-involved shootings, use of force, sexual assault and dishonesty. Many requests submitted to the county sought internal affairs investigations outside of those areas.
“Gov. Brown signed it for those four components,” Schmidt said. “It’s not the wild west where it opens it up to everything.…Stay in the lanes of the scope of the bill.”
Senate Bill 1421 took effect Jan. 1 and opens public access to internal investigations of police shootings and other incidents where an officer killed or seriously injured someone. It also allows the public to have access to investigations where allegations of sexual assault or lying on the job were proven.
Sheriff Margaret Mims said her office and the county received about 50 requests pertaining to the new law. The first requests were submitted just after midnight on Jan. 1. Mims reassigned a lieutenant to manage the requests.
While the county and sheriff’s office were preparing to respond to the requests, Judge Hamilton issued the court order.
“The legal contentions of peace officers and the competing demands of requesters places local governments like the county of Fresno in an impossible position without further legal guidance from the courts,” County Counsel Daniel Cederborg said in an emailed statement to The Bee.
If the county released the records, the county could be liable for breaching the Peace Officer Bill of Rights. But if the county refused to release the records, it could be liable under the California Public Records Act, Cederborg said.
Mims agreed. “I feel like we’re kind of caught in middle,” she said, adding that getting court direction was important.
The county intends to comply with the court order, Cederborg said.
The California State Sheriff’s Association opposed SB 1421, and Mims agreed with the group’s stance, she said.
Schmidt noted that new laws typically go into effect moving forward in time, not backward. “I’ve never seen a bill that goes backward on something,” he said.