ACLU Foundation of Northern California v. City of Fresno
In February 2009, a Fresno television newscast aired a video of a police officer repeatedly punching Glen Beaty, a homeless man, as two officers took him into custody. In the video, Beaty does not appear to be struggling, resisting, or doing anything else that could warrant this level of force: he is lying on the ground as one officer holds his arm and the other punches him in the head. His arms are behind his back when the officer delivers a final blow to the back of his head.
Under the California Public Records Act (PRA), agencies must make records readily available upon request – within ten days or, in unusual circumstances, 24 days. Yet nearly three months after the ACLU Foundation of Northern California requested the names of Fresno police officers involved in beating and arrest of Beaty, the City of Fresno continued to withhold all records.
In May 2009, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed suit challenging the City’s refusal. The suit sought access to the names of the police officers, and a change to the policy of refusing to release names of officers who have been reported as being involved in misconduct within the time limits mandated by the PRA.
One week after we filed suit, the City released the records. It nonetheless denies that it acted improperly in withholding them and refuses to change its policy for handling such requests or even to admit that it has a policy.
On Jan. 28, 2011, the Fresno County Superior Court ruled that in general, the government must release the names of police officers involved in critical incidents, within the time limits imposed by the PRA. However, the court also ruled that in cases where it has been widely reported in the press that the officers are being subject to an internal-affairs investigation, the City may refuse to release the names because such investigations are confidential under Copley Press v. Superior Court, the 2006 California Supreme Court decision that ended years of public access to police disciplinary hearings. On April 28, the Court ruled that the lawsuit had in fact led the City to release the names of the officers involved in the Beaty incident and that the ACLU Foundation of Northern California was therefore the prevailing party and entitled to its fees and expenses in bringing the suit.