Friday, March 7, 2003
Police Cannot Access Public Defender Database, Appeals Court Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Records of police officer actions, maintained as part of a database by a public defender’s office, are not public records and would be exempt from disclosure if they were, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. One upheld a ruling by San Diego Superior Court Judge William Nevitt Jr. denying a bid by eight local police unions to access the database maintained by the San Diego County public defender.
The project won an award from the state Public Defender Association but led to a lawsuit by labor groups.
Police officer associations from Coronado, El Cajon, La Mesa, National City, San Diego, the Harbor Police and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association and District Attorney Investigator Association filed the California Public Records Act suit two years ago. The groups demanded access to the database after the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the defender office had created it using information scanned from its individual case files and from public records.
Some information in the database is restricted, but the remaining data may be accessed by attorneys in the office for any legitimate purpose, including representing current clients, discovering witness statements that can be put to use in current cases, and discovering whether officers involved in current cases have been involved in Fourth Amendment violations or investigated for misconduct.
The police groups said they wanted to determine whether officers’ confidential information was being collected in violation of the state Constitution’s privacy clause and whether lawyers were violating protective orders limiting disclosure of personnel information obtained through discovery.
The state Supreme Court recently affirmed a Div. One ruling that if a court orders disclosure of matters in a police personnel file pursuant to the Pitchess procedure, it must issue a protective order limiting use of the information to the specific proceeding.
Justice James A. McIntyre, writing for a divided panel, said Nevitt was correct in ruling that the database is not a public record because the representation of indigent criminal defendants is a private function.
“Although the requested database was prepared, used and retained by the Public Defender...the critical question [under the CPRA] is whether the information contained therein relates to the conduct of the ‘public’s business,’” the justice said.
McIntyre cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a public defender, being independent of and acting as the adversary of the state, does not act under color of state law for purposes of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.
Under that ruling, McIntyre explained, “the public defender maintains the same level of professional independence as a private attorney, and the state is constitutionally obligated to respect this independence.” Thus, he noted, the Florida Supreme Court held that the broad Public Records Act in that state did not compel disclosure of records maintained by a state agency established to assist capital defendants in collateral proceedings.
The database, McIntyre said, falls under the same principle as the records sought to be discovered in the Florida case. “...[W]e believe the creation of the database represents a logical application of the traditional functions of defense counsel.”
All the database does, the justice said, is allow the lawyers within the office to obtain quick access to information that they could otherwise obtain, but in a more costly and less efficient manner. That efficiency, and the public defender’s ability to represent clients, would be hindered if members of the public were allowed to access the database, he said.
“Allowing [a police union] or other entities or individuals to dictate what information the Public Defender may retain and evaluate would unnecessarily intrude upon its work when private defense counsel is not subject to similar intrusion,” he wrote.
Justice Gilbert Nares concurred in the opinion, but Justice Richard Huffman dissented.
Huffman argued that the database is a public record because it is maintained by a government agency at public expense, and because the files were not maintained for the defense of specific individual clients.
“How can it be that records owned and compiled by a government agency, stored and maintained with public funds, that include both public and private information about individual citizens, regardless of their profession, are other than public records,?” he asked.
The case is Coronado Police Officers Association v. Carroll, D039198.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company