Friday, May 30, 2014

California Supreme Court Rules CPRA Requires "Particularized Showing" to Prevent Disclosure of Officers' Names After Shooting

On May 29, 2014 in Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach, the California Supreme Court held the California Public Records Act ("CPRA") requires a "particularized showing" of officer safety concerns to prevent disclosure of an officer's name after a shooting.  In this case, the Court found "vaguely worded declarations" and "general assertions" about officer safety risks was not enough to prevent disclosure.

On December 12, 2010, officers responded to a call about an intoxicated man brandishing a "six-shooter."  When officers arrived, the man pointed an object at them resembling a gun.  The officers opened fire and the man died.  It turned out the object he pointed at officers was a garden hose spray nozzle with a pistol grip.  A few days later, a reporter from the L.A. Times submitted a CPRA request for the names of the officers involved in the shooting, and the names of all officers involved in shootings from January 1, 2005 to December 11, 2010. 

CPRA section 6254 subsection (c) exempts from disclosure personnel or similar files if disclosure "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."  The Court refused to apply a blanket rule preventing disclosure of officers' names after a shooting in every circumstance.  Instead, the Court emphasized the public's interest in the conduct of its peace officers.  To overcome the public's interest and prevent disclosure, the City of Long Beach ("City") and the Long Beach Police Officers' Association ("Association") had to show disclosure would cause an unwarranted invasion of the officers' personal privacy. 

A particularized risk or threat to the officers' safety or their family's safety exempts officers' names from disclosure under the CPRA.  The Court stated "Of course, if it is essential to protect an officer's anonymity for safety reasons or for reasons peculiar to the officer's duties - as, for example, in the case of an undercover officer - then the public interest in disclosure of the officer's name may need to give way."  While the Association and the City submitted declarations describing the possibility of gang retaliation against officers involved in shootings with gang members, in the Court's opinion, the concerns were "general in nature."  The Court was quick to point out "We do not hold that the names of officers involved in shootings have to be disclosed in every case, regardless of the circumstances.  We merely conclude...that the particularized showing necessary to outweigh the public's interest in disclosure was not made here..." 

Justice Ming W. Chin disagreed with the majority's ruling and wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion.  In his view, the Association and the City presented ample evidence of the safety threat faced by police officers after a shooting.  He argued the City and the Association established officers' names should  be exempt from disclosure under the CPRA.  He concluded by stating courts should allow law enforcement agencies to protect their officers, because "They deserve at least that much for their brave service."