Merced County police unions file lawsuit to withhold misconduct records

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies arrest more that 50 gang associates throughout Merced County, Calif., on Wednesday, May 10, 2017.
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies arrest more that 50 gang associates throughout Merced County, Calif., on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Unions representing Merced County law enforcement have been awarded a stay from a Merced County Superior Court judge, allowing local agencies to withhold records for officers who committed acts of alleged misconduct prior to Jan. 1.

Both the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Merced Police Officers Association filed for the mandate from the court, which was granted by Judge Brian McCabe. The attorney representing each of the unions didn’t return requests for comment this week.

The stay allows the law enforcement agencies to withhold those records while attorneys debate the merit of making the records public for officers who committed sexual assault or acted dishonestly on the job, as well as records related to the use of force.

Those records are supposed to be made available by public request under a new law, Senate Bill 1421, which took effect Jan. 1. Many law enforcement agencies around the state have argued the law is not retroactive. Those agencies have filed for mandates similar to the Merced County police unions.

The L.A. Times and The Sacramento Bee sued the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office for records under the new law, arguing that denying the requests violated the California Public Records Act.

Cities and heads of law enforcement have said they can only release records that comply with the state’s Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights and other privacy policies.

When Fresno refused to release misconduct records, the American Civil Liberties Union called the the city’s behavior nothing less than a “last ditch effort to thwart the will of the people and the right to transparency.”

Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, told the Fresno Bee that Senate Bill 1421 is clear in what it requires, and other agencies across the state are complying.

“It’s disappointing because we think the law is clear in that agencies and the government should comply with the law and turn these records over,” she said. “We don’t think it’s ambiguous or a close call.”

The city of Merced this week rejected a public records request from the Sun-Star for records going back to Jan. 1, 2014, related to instances of dishonesty and excessive use of force, citing the judge’s ruling. The city said it had no sustained cases of sexual assault by an officer.

Merced City Attorney Phaedra Norton said her office took no official stance on the debate and would follow the Superior Court’s decision.

Merced County has yet to respond to a similar Sun-Star request for the records of deputies. The Merced County Counsel’s Office in February filed a declaration in court in support of the union’s request to withhold those documents.

The Los Banos Police Department said it had no sustained sexual assaults nor letters of discipline on an officer since Jan. 2014.

Fresno Bee reporter Brianna Calix contributed to this report.