Bill allowing fines for CPRA violations faces suspenseful hurdle

On Wednesday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee sent to the mysterious “suspense” file one of CNPA’s top legislative priorities, AB 1479, which creates a penalty of up to $5,000 for agencies that violate the California Public Records Act.

The bill, authored by Asssemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), would allow a judge to award a requester who prevails in a lawsuit seeking public records to also recover damages for the bad acts of the agency, if the agency charged an unauthorized fee, unreasonably delayed disclosure, or acted in bad faith in executing its duties under the CPRA.

A recent example played out when the City of Eureka refused to disclose dash-cam footage of an arrest, claiming that the video recording was a police personnel record and protected from disclosure under the Pitchess statutes. Editor for the North Coast Journal, Thadeus Greenson, challenged the city’s interpretation, which was contrary to case law litigated by CNPA members that limit the scope of the Pitchess’ confidentiality provisions. The trial and appellate courts sided with Greenson, ruling that dash-cam footage of an arrest, like initial incident reports of an on-duty shooting, or the name of a police officer, could not be withheld as personnel records simply because they may eventually end up in an officer’s personnel file.

While this case ultimately represented a victory for access, the city was able to delay disclosure to information of high public interest by asserting baseless legal arguments that have been rejected by the California Supreme Court. Under AB 1479, a judge would have the discretion to penalize the city for this type of behavior.

AB 1479 was analyzed by the Appropriations Committee for its fiscal impacts on the state, which it deemed “unknown.” Due to the unknown costs, the bill was placed on the suspense file. CNPA urges members to editorialize in support of the bill prior to the Appropriations Committee’s May 26 hearing, when the fate of AB 1479, and all other bills placed on the suspense file, will be announced.

CNPA will be discussing AB 1479, among other CPRA issues, next week at its annual summit in Santa Monica. On Saturday morning, May 20, panelists including media lawyers David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, Jeff Glasser, senior counsel for the Los Angeles Times, Jean-Paul Jassy of Jassy Vick Carolan LLP, and CNPA staff will talk about how agencies use long delays, charge unauthorized fees and resist producing public records as a means to thwart reporting on matters of public interest.