News   /   March 31, 2021   /   

Police Officer Privacy Rights at Issue in Collondrez v. City of Rio Vista

California Court of Appeal provides guidance regarding access and privacy issues related to police personnel records in Collondrez v. City of Rio Vista.

A former police officer sued a city over the city’s disclosure of records related to the officer’s falsification of incident and investigation reports and excessive use of force in effectuating an arrest under SB 1421. In ruling on the city’s anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, the trial court concluded that the city’s disclosure did in fact arise out of protected activity and that the officer could prevail on some of his claims, including claims for breach of contract and invasion of privacy. The Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part. More specifically, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the officer’s complaint arose from speech protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, but disagreed that the officer established a likelihood of prevailing on any of the claims.

In August 2017, the officer responded to a hit and run accident. After an internal affairs investigation was conducted, it was determined that, among other things, the officer falsified his incident and investigation reports and used excessive force. The city found that the officer violated city policies and signaled its intent to terminate the officer. Thereafter, the officer exercised his right to a Skelly hearing. The parties also attended an arbitration, resulting in the officer withdrawing his appeal and the parties settling the matter.

In September 2018, the officer and the city entered into a settlement agreement that included a provision regarding the officer’s disciplinary notices and reports in his personnel file. Under the settlement agreement, the city would release the information only as required by law and the officer would receive notice of any requests for information and an opportunity to object to the release of records.

In 2018, the state legislature and governor adopted and approved SB 1421, which amended Penal Code section 832.7 requiring the disclosure of officer personnel records pertaining to, among other things, records relating to sustained findings of an officer’s dishonesty directly related to reporting, investigating, or prosecuting crimes.

In January 2019, the city received several requests for records under the California Public Records Act for records related to the officer’s personnel file and disciplinary action taken against him. The city then produced responsive records and provided the officer prior notice of some, but not all, of the disclosures. After the publication of the released information, the officer’s current employer terminated his employment.

The officer sued the city and asserted four causes of action: breach of contract, invasion of privacy, interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The city demurred and moved to strike the officer’s complaint under the states’ anti-SLAPP statute.

As to the breach of contract and invasion of privacy claims, the trial court overruled the demurrer and denied the anti-SLAPP motion. As to the interference with prospective economic advantage and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, the court deemed the demurrer moot and granted the anti-SLAPP motion. Both parties appealed the trial court’s ruling.

The state’s anti-SLAPP statute provides for the early dismissal of meritless claims brought to undermine constitutionally protected speech. Courts analyze anti-SLAPP motions in a two-step process: (1) whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the challenged claim arises from protected activity and (2) whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the court of appeal concluded that the officer’s claims arose from protected activity, setting aside the breach of contract issue and noting that the act of disclosure was at the core of the officer’s lawsuit. The court of appeal further concluded that the officer did not establish a likelihood of prevailing, however.

In examining the officer’s ability to prevail on the claim that the city wrongfully disclosed records under SB 1421, the court of appeal considered (1) whether there was a sustained finding or final determination regarding the officer’s dishonesty and (2) whether the city unlawfully failed to redact information in the officer’s file that generally related to the August 2017 incident but did not directly relate to the dishonesty finding (i.e., information regarding the warrantless arrest, inappropriate use of force, and failure to secure medical care for the suspect).

As to the sustained finding issue, the trial court concluded there was no such sustained finding, reasoning that the parties settled the matter prior to the city’s issuance of any sustained finding regarding the officer’s dishonesty. The court of appeal rejected the trial court’s reasoning, finding that the statutory language hinged on an opportunity for an administrative appeal, without regard to whether the opportunity is exercised or pursued to completion.

As to the relevance of information related to the incident but not directly related to the dishonesty finding, the court of appeal concluded that the city appropriately concluded the information, reasoning that Penal Code section 832.7 provides limited circumstances in which redactions may be made, and that none of the circumstances were present.

The opinion provides much needed guidance on how local law enforcement agencies should address requests for personnel information in a post-SB 1421 era. More specifically, the opinion clarifies that an officer’s attempt and eventual abandonment of any appeal results in a sustained finding, and information surrounding (but not critical to) sustained findings of dishonesty are subject to disclosure.

OMLO will continue to monitor and provide updates regarding public agencies’ reporting obligations and law enforcement officers’ privacy rights as they become available. If you have any questions regarding workplace policies, please contact your OMLO attorney.

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