Thursday, March 9, 2017

Court Blocks Public Officials Attempt to Remove Personal Identification from Website

In Publius v. Boyer-Vine the court granted a preliminary injunction preventing 14 Senators and 26 Assembly Members from demanding a website remove their personal information.  They were relying on Government Code §6254.21(c), which allows elected and appointed officials to demand personal information be removed from a website if they feel threatened.  The court held the statute violated the Plaintiff’s First Amendment Rights and the Commerce Clause. 

The Plaintiff was a Massachusetts resident and manager of the website Northeastshooters.com.  People on the website began an online discussion about a recent incident in California.  A blogger posted the names, home addresses, and phone numbers of California legislatures who supported several gun control bills.  Numerous legislators reported threats and demanded the California blogger remove the information pursuant to Government Code §6254.21.  The California blogger removed the information without incident.  However, during the discussion on Northeastshooters.com one user re-posted all of the personal information.  Legislative Counsel learned the information had been re-posted and demanded the Plaintiff remove the information.  He sought injunctive relief, claiming §6254.21 violated his First Amendment Rights and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The court first determined the statute violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff because it was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.  The statute did not attempt to prevent true threats.  There is a difference between publishing private information and public information. The statute did not address the difference.  In this case, the information posted on line had come from public sources.  Additionally, it was underinclusive because it did not prohibit print media from disclosing personal information. 

The court also held the law violated the Commerce Clause.  The Plaintiff was a resident of Massachusetts being regulated by a California statute.  Regulating interstate commerce is a power held by the federal government.  The statute attempts to regulate information posted to the internet.  The court noted it is almost impossible for a state to regulate internet activities without projecting the legislation into other states.  The court found the practical effect of the statute was to attempt to control conduct outside of California.  Because of this practical effect the statute was found to violate the Commerce Clause.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Fourth Circuit Upholds Semi-Automatic Assault Weapons Ban

Recently, in Kolbe v. Hogan (2017) --- F.3d ---- , the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Maryland law banning certain semi-automatic assault weapons and magazines in excess of ten rounds. The Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment did not apply to protect these weapons. The court decided they were, “weapons that are most useful in military service” as described in the United States Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) 554 U.S. 570. The Court also ruled that even if the 2nd Amendment applied, the law would be constitutional. 

Maryland's law prohibits semi-automatic rifles with folding stocks, a grenade or flare launcher, or a flash suppressor. The law also prohibits rifles that utilize magazines that can hold more than ten rounds and rifles with a total length of less than 29 inches. The law also banned semi-automatic shotguns with a folding stock and shotguns with a revolving cylinder. 

Proponents of the law gave evidence regarding the history of the prohibited weapons as weapons designed for use by the military. The evidence paid special attention to the history of the AR-15. They also presented evidence which suggested that there is little difference in the automatic and semi-automatic versions of the banned weapons. This was the proponents' attempt to prove that the semi-automatic weapons can be more lethal in certain situations. 

Proponents of the law also argued that keeping magazines under ten rounds would aid victims in an active shooter situation. They reasoned that it would greatly increase the number of opportunities for victims to disable the shooter or escape. 

Those challenging the law argued that the prohibited weapons have a lawful use for self-defense, hunting and shooting competitions. The parties gave evidence that large capacity magazines are necessary for self-defense and the defense of loved ones. They argued that a person under the stress of an attack has a tendency to miss shots and tends to have difficulty reloading. Accordingly, challengers to the law argued that large capacity magazines are necessary for proper self-defense.  

Arguments were also made that the State did not have a legitimate purpose for the ban and were simply trying to ban specific weapons. Challengers pointed out that the law did not ban some semi-automatic weapons which could be modified to be similar to those banned by the law. They also pointed out that these weapons cause a small number of deaths each year. This was especially true when compared to yearly deaths caused by hand guns and other deadly weapons. 

Ultimately, in a split decision, the 4th Circuit sided with the proponents of the law. The Court found that the banned weapons and magazines were “weapons that are most useful in military service." The 4th Circuit held that such weapons are not protected by the 2nd Amendment under Heller

Additionally, the Court ruled that even if the 2nd Amendment applied, the law was constitutional. The court stated that this was because of the compelling state interests in public safety and the reduction of crime. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

CA Supreme Court: Public Records Act Applies to Public Business Conducted on Personal Accounts

The California Supreme Court ruled today that public officials' communications about public business is a public record, even if officials use personal accounts.  In City of San Jose v. Ted Smith, a local activist sought communications about a redevelopment project in downtown San Jose.  He made a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).  The request included any voicemails or emails from the Mayor of San Jose, the members of the City Council, and any staff regarding matters concerning the City of San Jose.  Initially, the trial court determined the requests to be valid.  The City appealed.

Then, the Court of Appeal reviewed the language of the CPRA.  The court ruled information held on private devices is not subject to CPRA.  The court reasoned the CPRA defines public records as writings owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency, not individual. The court believed this means individuals are not covered by the CPRA.

The California Supreme Court did not find this reasoning persuasive.  The legislative intent of the CPRA was to create a right of access to public information.  If the public document does not fall into a narrow exception the standard should be disclosure.  One notable exception is a law enforcement officer’s personnel file.

The Court reasoned the CPRA should be read broadly and construed to further the people’s right to access public documents.  If a document is used by a city official in conducting city business the document is retained by the city.  This is true regardless of where the document is stored.

The City's argued it should not have to look through personal email accounts for public records because it was too hard and would cost money.  The Court was unconvinced by this argument and held he government agency is required to disclose all records they can locate “with reasonable effort.”  However, it cannot avoid disclosure by declaring a request to be too burdensome.

Mastagni Holstedt filed an Amicus Curiae brief in the case representing more than a dozen public safety labor associations.  The brief emphasized how some high ranking public officials use their personal accounts to evade the requirements of the CPRA, especially in the context of collective bargaining and labor relations.  For example, during the Stockton bankruptcy, city officials communicated with purportedly independent outside consultants about modifying to their findings and recommendations using personal emails.  Prior to today’s ruling, government agencies could shield such information from disclosure under the CPRA.  Today’s decision puts an end to these practices.  Moreover, the Court's interpretation of the CPRA will likely be extended to information requests under public sector bargaining laws, such as the MMBA.  

From a labor perspective, permitting public officials, such as City managers, to bypass open records laws by using personal electronic devices would have adversely affected union access to information necessary to represent their members.  

The Court also provided guidance to public agencies for complying with these obligations while protecting privacy rights.  Notably, the Court recommended agencies require that employees use or copy their government accounts for all communications touching on public business.  In terms of searches, the agencies can comply by communicating the request to the employees and "then reasonably rely on these employees to search their own personal files, accounts, and devices for responsive material."  Attorneys David E. Mastagni, Isaac S. Stevens, and Jeffrey R. A. Edwards represented these amici.