Legal Alerts Jan 27, 2015

No Time Restrictions on PRA Information from Police Agencies

Court of Appeal Rules No Time Limit on Records, but Burden on Agency May be Considered

No Time Restrictions on PRA Information from Police Agencies

A law enforcement agency cannot set a time period on the information related to citizen complaints and requests for assistance required to be disclosed by the Public Records Act, a California Court of Appeal has held. However, the decision does note an exemption may nonetheless be available if a public agency must undertake a complicated, time-consuming review, redaction and production process. In general, the “fiscal and workload burden being imposed upon a public agency by a particular request” may be a relevant factor to consider in determining whether a public agency must produce responsive records.

The case,  Fredericks v. City of San Diego, arose out of the plaintiff’s PRA request to the San Diego Police Department for all complaints and/or requests for assistance made during the prior six months. The City provided documents only for the previous 60 days. The trial court agreed with the City, ruling that only “current” police information must be disclosed. On appeal, the court found there was no statutory basis to impose a time limit for disclosing such information. However, the court left open the possibility that the request may have been so burdensome that the City did not have to disclose the records.

In general, records relating to investigations conducted by police departments are exempt from disclosure under the PRA. However, under limited exceptions, departments must disclose general information about arrests and police responses to complaints or requests for assistance. In the 1993 case County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar), the Court of Appeal held that these exceptions apply only to “current” or contemporaneous information collected at the time an incident occurs, not historical information from the investigation.

At issue in Fredericks was the meaning of “contemporaneous.” The trial court held that, under Kusar, the City could refuse to disclose records beyond 60 days because such records were no longer contemporaneous. The appellate court overturned the trial court in this regard, holding that nothing in the PRA allows a police department to set such a time limit.

Many departments comply with the requirement to disclose general information on citizen complaints and requests for assistance by providing daily/weekly/monthly crime logs, arrest logs and/or CAD (computer-aided dispatch) printouts for recent police responses at specific locations. To the extent a department creates and maintains such records, and the records do not contain otherwise exempt or confidential information, the records will continue to be subject to disclosure without any time limit.

However, the Court of Appeal specifically noted that such records may be exempt under Government Code section 6255 if the nature of the request is overly burdensome on the public agency. Though the PRA does not expressly provide a time limit on disclosing police records, the court pointed out that nothing in the law proscribes such a limit either. The court also noted other possible grounds for exemption, such as the risk of compromising ongoing investigations. Thus, even though the court disagreed with the City’s basis for the exemption, the case leaves open clear methods to balance the interests of the public and the government agency when dealing with burdensome requests.

If you have any questions about this case or how it may impact your department, please contact the attorney author of this legal alert listed to the right in the firm’s Public Policy and Ethics Compliance group, or your BB&K attorney. (A paralegal assisted in the writing, planning and research of this article.)

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