California AG demands journalists to destroy information obtained through public records - or else

California AG demands journalists to destroy information obtained through public records - or else

Thousands of convicted law enforcement officers - and applicants - are named in the list, which Xavier Becerra’s office claims is a misdemeanor to even possess

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Edited by JPat Brown

California’s top law official is threatening legal action against a pair of journalist who obtained a list of police officers convicted of crimes within the last decade.

Reporters Robert Lewis and Jason Paladino at the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California Berkeley and Investigative Studios received the list through a California Public Records Act request asking for data indicating whether peace officer’s left a job voluntarily or for a disqualifying reason. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, also known as POST, released the responsive data to Paladino and Lewis four weeks after it received the request.

“These are convictions, not just allegations. There is a distinction between misconduct records and these records.” said Paladino.

Following the release of records, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra caught wind of the situation and sent a letter to Lewis and Paladino demanding the destruction of the list and any related items. Becerra’s office said the records were “not authorized by statute” to have been disclosed, as they contain information regarding civilians, as well as current and former peace officers. Overall, the list holds nearly 12,000 names.

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“We always strive to balance the public’s right to know, the need to be transparent and an individual’s right to privacy,” said Becerra to MuckRock. “In this case, information from a database that’s required by law to be confidential was released erroneously, jeopardizing personal data of individuals across our state. No one wants to shield criminal behavior; we’re subject to the rule of law.”

In his letter, Becerra noted the released records are deemed confidential under California Government Code, § 6254, subd. (k), which restricts the release of records deemed exempt under law.

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In a goal to arm requesters with knowledge, we’ve launched a new project page hosting state-by-state public record law stories and key players fighting for transparency in those states. Do you have a records struggle in your state? Let us know!

The documents provided were extracted directly from the Automated Criminal History System, a confidential law enforcement database maintained only by the California Department of Justice. Access to that system is restricted by law, but the POST was given access to that information through a public safety bill that passed last year allowing to keep records detailing when a current or former law officer is convicted of a felony or other crime that would disqualify them from being a cop.

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A CA DOJ spokesperson noted the reporters choice to publish the confidential information “despite being alerted by the Department of Justice that doing so was prohibited by law.”

“The law does grant POST access to the ACHS data for the purpose of assessing whether peace officer applicants, or individuals employed as peace officers, meet the minimum standards for service at a California law enforcement agency.”

In spite of legal threats, the reporters have no intention of destroying records. Currently, Lewis and Paladino plan to challenge the AG’s orders and move forward in their reporting.

“I am hopeful that the arguments [the AG] put forth don’t hold water legally,” added Paladino. “I don’t think there is any reason why we would have to delete them.”

The state’s legal threats come after the First Amendment Coalition recently filed suit against Becerra for refusing to release police misconduct records under the state’s new law, Senate Bill 1421, requiring their disclosure.

“Yes, it’s all tangentially related to SB 1421, but where it’s related the most is in the current climate of transparency and police accountability in the state,” added Paladino.

The AG’s letter is embedded below.

Image Attorney General Becerra Facebook