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Newspapers sue Sacramento sheriff for refusing to release records

Scott Jones makes case that new law applies only to records created after Jan 1, 2019

By Matthew Keys, January 25, 2019 4:01 pm

A mailer from Jones’ recent successful campaign.

The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones for refusing to comply with a California Public Records Act request for records related to sheriff’s deputies employed by his agency.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court earlier today, said both newspapers were seeking access to records related to deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct while they were on duty.

Those records, the newspapers say, must be disclosed under a new police transparency law that took effect at the start of the year. Senate Bill 1241 requires law enforcement agencies to disclose records related to “specified incidents, complaints and investigations involving police officers” unless those records are protected under another provision of California law.

In responding to the requests, the Bee reported the sheriff’s department found records that were responsive, but refused to disclose them until his office had “clear legal authority to release such records.”

A lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the newspapers said the new bill makes that legal authority clear and that the agency is trying to apply the new law only to records created after January 1. A letter sent to the newspapers from the sheriff’s department said Senate Bill 1241 did not apply retroactively to records created before this year.

Newspaper executives say the new law “made clear that law enforcement should be transparent in how it has used deadly force” and whether or not officers who misused their authority were disciplined.

Longstanding feud with the Sac Bee

“This is a matter of serious public interest,” Sacramento Bee Editor Lauren Gustus said in a statement published by the newspaper. “We at The Bee believe access to these records must be extended retroactively.”

Jones, who was elected to a third term in November, has been at odds with the Bee for years over various issues. Just before this past election, the paper used him as its epitome of what’s wrong with the way the state chooses county law enforcement, in a stinging article by Erika D. Smith headlined “Sacramento’s Scott Jones is a case study of why California should appoint — not elect — sheriffs.” The story irritated the sheriff, who surely questioned the story’s timing.

This lawsuit adds to an already challenging week for Sheriff Jones. The 51-year-old was rushed to the emergency room on Monday with what he described as “excruciating pain” and underwent the removal of his gallbladder, among other procedures.

Meanwhile, in a similar case on Friday, a judge in Contra Costa County issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the City of Richmond from releasing police records that were created before January 1. That case was filed by an organization representing Richmond police officers who are seeking to block retroactive applications of the new state law, according to journalist Darwin Bond-Graham.

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