What SB 1421 Does and Who it Applies To The state of California has a strong Public Records Act and language in its constitution guaranteeing the right of the public to access public information, but there have historically been many exemptions to disclosure of law enforcement records in particular. Effective January 1, 2019, a law called SB 421 makes it explicit that in four types of serious cases those records must be handed over in response to a request from a member of the public. SB 1421 therefore provides a powerful new tool for accessing records related to law enforcement officers who fall within the scope of the law, which would most commonly be city police officers, county deputy sheriffs, California Highway Patrol officers, and California correctional officers. It also applies to documents in the possession of the California Department of Justice, even if Cal DOJ did not create those documents. (See Becerra v. Superior Court (2020) 44 Cal.App.5th 897, 910.) Notably, SB 1421 would not typically apply to records related to federal officials, such as border patrol or ICE agents. SB 1421 is retroactive, and some agencies, such as the San Diego Sheriff's Department, have created websites (see the link below) where they have posted records from prior years that are responsive to the new law. The Four Categories of Cases Where Documents Must Be Disclosed Under SB 1421, records must be turned over in the following four types of cases:
1. Incidents where an officer fired a gun at a person.
2. Incidents where an officer used force against a person causing "great bodily injury" or death.
3. Incidents where an officer was found to have engaged in "sexual assault involving a member of the public," and
4. Incidents where there was a "sustained finding" by a law enforcement agency of "dishonesty" related to reporting on a crime, including perjury, falsifying evidence, and so on. Requesting Documents You don't need to be a lawyer to submit a California Public Records Act request to an agency, nor is there any fee for doing so, but if you submit a request on your own you should definitely do it in writing and keep a copy of your request. The ACLU of Southern California has a sample request letter on its website, linked below. The challenging part of this law comes when agencies delay or deny disclosure of records, as they often do. Some sorts of denials and delays during pending investigations are legal, while others are not. In a similar vein, some forms of redaction of disclosed records are permissible or even legally required, while others are not. In trying to evaluate the validity of a response by an agency, it may be useful to contact an attorney. The California Public Records Act provides for attorney fees, so such cases may be able to be handled with no up-front costs. Challenging Legal Questions As with any relatively new law, challenging questions remain about the how exactly SB 1421 will be interpreted in specific cases. In Becerra, the Court of Appeal concluded that a "catchall" provision of the Public Records Act permits even the specific types of records called out in SB 1421 to be withheld if there is a "public interest" that clearly outweighs disclosure based on the specific facts of a given situation. The interplay between these statutes has the potential to substantially limit the reach of SB 1421, and it is likely that some law enforcement agencies will advance legal arguments that encourage exactly that outcome, particularly in counties where judges will be sympathetic to that perspective. It is likely that these issues will ultimately need to be sorted out in more detail in the appellate courts.