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ACLU Hits LASD With Lawsuit Over Failure to Release Misconduct Records Under Police Transparency Law

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

By refusing to release documents to the ACLU and to families seeking information after deputies used fatal force, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department continues to violate SB 1421, California’s “Right to Know” police transparency law, according to a new lawsuit against the department.

The ACLU of Southern California and Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP filed the lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court, on October 29, on behalf of the ACLU and three family members of people killed by LASD deputies. The sheriff’s department has denied these families’ requests for documents related to their loved ones’ deaths, as well as requests from the ACLU for records related to misconduct and shootings.

For those unfamiliar, starting on January 1, 2019, SB 1421 made records related to police misconduct and serious and fatal uses of force available to the media and the public via California Public Records Act requests.

SB 1421 grants the public access to personnel records of officers who are found to have been dishonest in the “reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime.” Until this year, even prosecutors have been barred from accessing personnel records that may impact their cases, even for officers with a history of lying in police reports or planting evidence.

Records of on-duty sexual assault, including when cops exchange sex for leniency, also became newly available to the public under SB 1421.

Under SB 1421, law enforcement agencies must also release records of incidents in which officers use certain kinds of force–including when cops discharge their firearms or Tasers, use a weapon to strike a person’s head or neck, or use force that results in serious bodily harm or death.

Prior to January 2019, state law ensured that police personnel records remained private “without regard to the public interest in the records or any balancing inquiry,” the ACLU and Munger, Tolles & Olson said in their lawsuit.

Four decades ago, in 1978, California barred public access to this information, making it the most secretive state in the country when it came to law enforcement records. Prosecutors in CA have not even had the authority to access the records of officers found to have committed misconduct under the color of authority, including those records related to planting evidence or lying in police reports.

The secrecy surrounding police misconduct was supposed to have cracked open with the passage of SB 1421, but police officials across the state resisted the new law, challenging the bill and its retroactivity in court, and physically shredding documents they didn’t want to make public, in order to protect officers.

Last week’s filing marks the latest addition to a line of lawsuits against agencies that have refused to turn over SB 1421 documents. (The First Amendment Coalition even had to sue California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, after the AG chose to withhold records relating to misconduct among state police officers. The FAC ultimately prevailed against the AG’s office.)

These public records, according to the lawsuit, should be released within a maximum of 24 days after a request is submitted. Of all the police agencies from which the ACLU has requested SB 1421-eligible documents, the LASD was the only agency that has not provided the organization with any records at all.

The LASD has denied the ACLU’s document requests multiple times, by employing “meritless and inapplicable exemptions” to the California Public Records Act — saying that the ACLU’s requests were overly broad, and the org needed to provide the names of officers about whom the org was seeking records.

But “given the secrecy of peace officer records prior to the passage of SB 1421,” the suit challenged, “it is impossible for the ACLU or any requestor to provide the names of deputies who have disclosable records of misconduct.” Other agencies in the state had responded to requests under the new law without the ACLU or news media organizations having to provide specific deputies’ names. The department has statutory “duty to assist” with the formulation of a CA Public Records Act Request due to its “greater knowledge of its own recordkeeping system,” the lawsuit continues.

Even when the ACLU sought personnel files for the individuals named on a “Brady list” of officers found to have been dishonest, the sheriff’s department rejected the requests. According to the LASD, the request was “overly broad” and failed “to describe an identifiable record.” Moreover, the department said it was “not obligated to expend time to . . . . research to attempt to determine the names of the personnel [ACLU] is seeking.”

The Families

The ACLU is suing on behalf of the families of Anthony Weber, Jazmyne Eng, and Nephi Arreguin, who are still waiting to receive LASD records related to their loved ones’ deaths during law enforcement encounters.

“They have waited months since making those requests and years since their family members’ deaths for this information but have received nothing but silence from LASD,” according to the suit.

When LASD Deputy Brian Vance killed Jazmyne Ha Eng, who was reportedly under 5-feet-tall and weighed little more than 100 pounds, the 40-year-old had been seeking psychiatric help at the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead. Eng, who was suffering from schizophrenia, was holding a small ball-peen hammer and screaming when Vance, one of four deputies who responded to the call for a psychiatric hold, shot her. The shooting occurred within 12 seconds of the deputies making contact with Eng on January 4, 2012.

Vinly Eng, Jazmyne’s brother, sought records regarding his sister’s death and the deputies who responded to the call. The department said that it had no eligible records for the three other deputies involved, and has produced no records for those deputies or for Vance, the deputy who shot Eng — despite the fact that the deputies were disciplined for failing to meet department standards during the encounter.

On May 7, 2015, LASD deputies opened fire into a vehicle, killing Nephi Arreguin, a reportedly unarmed 20-year-old soon-to-be father suspected of burglary. It’s unclear whether Nephi was sleeping when deputies approached him in his car, whether he began driving when deputies neared, and whether he drove toward one of the deputies before the shooting occurred.

As in the other cases, the department has rebuffed requests from Arreguin’s uncle, Zachary Wade, to produce records related to the fatal shooting. After a request for a 14-day extension to produce records, the department went silent.

Anthony Weber was 16 when deputies fatally shot him on February 4, 2018, as he fled from deputies into an apartment complex. Officers said they had seen a firearm tucked into Weber’s waistband before they shot him, but no gun was found at the scene. “… The department publicly speculated that someone removed the gun from the scene of the shooting,” the lawsuit states. The shooting set of weeks of protests in South LA, and Weber’s family received a $3.75 million settlement from LA County. Yet, Weber’s mother, Demetra Johnson, still hasn’t been able to access records related to her son’s death.

On March 21, 2019, Johnson, submitted a CA Public Records Act request to the department, seeking documents related to the police report and investigation of her son’s death, as well as any records of administrative discipline for the officers who killed her son.

The department sent a 14-day extension request to Johnson. Months later, however, the department has failed to respond to Johnson’s follow-up letter, and still has not released the requested records, according to the lawsuit.

“My son Anthony was 16 years old when he was shot by the deputies for no reason,” says Johnson. “He had no gun, nothing to threaten them. It has been more than a year, and I still don’t have answers. We deserve to see those records, not just for my family, but because it will help change the sheriff’s department.”

The LA County Sheriff’s Department has “repeatedly refused to satisfy [its] obligations under the CPRA to timely search for and produce records responsive to Petitioners’ requests,” the lawsuit says. “This conduct violates the CPRA and Article I, § 3 of the California Constitution.”

30 Comments

  • “We deserve to see those records…because it will help change the sheriff’s department.”

    Good luck on that.

    Remember the Kolts Commission?

    It can be Googled if you forgot.

    The guy who chaired it was James G. Kolts; he was the trial judge in this case

    http://www.whenlawmenlie.com

    Twenty-two years after the Kolts Commission Report was published–don’t forget: it can be Googled if you haven’t read it–the Sheriff, Undersheriff, the guy in charge of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, and I forgot how many other underlings (I think the number is around twenty or so) were convicted in Federal Court via jury trial for corrupt behavior.

    Things didn’t get better after The Report was published; they got worse.

    And the LASD’s top echelon got Federally convicted.

  • I am sure that the proselytizers and enforces of the Department ( the cheer squad of hissy fits ) are going to defend it with their constant , endless, fawning praise and their endless vitriol of its opponents based on their biased, sloppy, or based on dumb predicates. As of right now our Department is being led by a guy who is hyperventilating, a sign of moral rot within the Department because he is bought and paid for by the union. AV cannot make any decisions without Ron and the union putting thier finger on the scale when it comes to deputy personnel matters.

    The records need to be released if AV is to be taken seriously as a “reformer”. However, AV will probably mumble some sort of dramatic and lurid misdirection, a message far fetched , and only in the way that AV shapes his message, strategy, and Departmental policy is vital to understanding how deeply broken his vision as Sheriff of the largest Law Enforcement Agency in the Country was from the start.

    The recent lawsuits against the Department are just the beginning of a lot more to come. I do not believe that the Department can survive without transparency. Without truth, there can be no trust. Without clear transparency there can be no trust. AV must be open and honest on all matters of discipline, regardless of how the truth reflects on the Department if he wants to maintain faith while embracing reason and truth.

    • @415 Enigma,
      Your analysis is very lucid and credible. The gut punch to Ron Hernandez is past due with millions being wasted by ALADS unbeknownst to the 99% of deputies, second only to him sniffing the tail of the Sheriff.

      Alex is a good guy but a little over his head as Sheriff. Many may take some opinions as hatred but constructive criticism has never killed anyone.

      Transparency will get many Law Enforcement Agencies over the hump but to fight transparency is always a losing battle as many of us know, things will get worse before it gets better.

      • Not sure how I got dragged into this, but it seems not too long ago I was accused of being loyal to McDonnell and it was said ALADS would never go against him or support another candidate.

        And, here we are again with the vague misleading statements, “wasting millions!”

        If you mean supporting our members, filing lawsuits on their behalf and fighting bad legislation, then I guess we/I am guilty.

        Ballots are out! VOTE!

        • You had to show up, didn’t you Ron.
          So much for misleading statement on “wasting millions” = Superior Court Case BC540789.
          Your deflection and curve balls without addressing the “reckless spending with no return” is astonishing. If nothing else Ron, admit the amount.

          • Yes I did have to “show up,” since it was pointed out my name was mentioned.

            Any member can come down and ask questions about your case.

            How ironic that it bothers you that I “show up,” which is something you rarely did!

  • Sometimes it’s a determination to do the right thing, damn the consequences from the Union, the anger or the dissent it will cause. AV must lead in word and action, demanding incalculable sacrifice and highest level of ethics and morals, on and off duty to present incalculable harm to the Department.

    Dignity matters in a Sheriff ? because at some point in every administration of the Sheriff, history comes knocking. Crisis require the Sheriff ( AV in this case ) to be the moral leader, to guide, to heal, to comfort, to direct the painful energies of a hurt community into a positive direction. More members of the community believe AV is dishonest and untrustworthy than believe that of any Sheriff since Baca. Truth and honesty are vital pillars of leadership as Sheriff of LA County, they create an ineffable reservoir of goodwill for the moments when the man in the Ivory Tower can use this goodwill to buttress against attacks on his policies, his intentions nd his statements.

    • It not easy to “damn the consequences from the Union” (ALADS) when they spot you 1.3 Million for your election.

      Hey bro, don’t you know Quid Pro Quo?

      • @ SHAD 49 – Well said . Ron did spot the 1.3 Million for the election. An LT buddy told me that he was even there for the after party.

        • You guys are worse than criminals!

          If you let people talk enough they start to fumble over their own BS and trip over lies.

          So where exactly did this “after” party take place and how come I wasn’t invited?

          If you’re talking about a campaign “watch party” thrown and funded by a candidate, then say that instead of trying to lead people to believe ALADS threw a party.

          And FYI: I don’t see a whole lot of people backing your play against what ALADS did to turn the tide on behalf of the members.

          Remind me again what I got out of this?

          • You got “goose eggs” and the largest single legal tab in ALADS history. Wait for it……on behalf of the members. LMAO!

  • Well lets rewind back a year. It was no secret during the campaign that AV used fear ( stating McD was a Trump loyalist ) and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in LA County voters. It is very obvious now that he is unprepared and unsuited for the position of Sheriff and this whole thing is such a damn catastrophe.”

    Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like a lot of member’s of the Department, we clung to a slim hope that somehow AV would work to improve the status of the Department and not get caught up into the whole ” truth and reconciliation” bullshit. In addition it does not help when people around him in the Ivory Tower have no power to act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of the Sheriff.
    I think it is safe to declare a state of “wholesale panic” in the upper levels of the command staff.

  • @ LASD Apostle and 415 Enigma,
    You both have correctly identified the current status of LASD as many will agree but remain silent.

  • I think it is only safe to declare you suffer from multiple maladies, one of them being a curious aversion to reality Mr 415 Enema. Just because Villanueva was smart to call out McDonnell for his support of Trump and his ICE policies doesn’t make him dishonest. My guess is your career ended when Sheriff V took over, and your loss of unearned privilege was too much for you to bear.

    Crime is down 7% across the county, crooks are going to jail, morale is sky high and people are lining up to join the LASD. Yes, quite the train wreck. Jail violence is down double digits, leaving the BOS, COC, and OIG fuming about their fake claims regarding dismantling reform efforts. Your ivory tower bred hero, McDonnell, couldn’t find the keys to the restroom in four years, and Villanueva is making him look like the BOS appointed and loyal servant that he was.

    415 Enema, since this article is about 1421 and transparency, don’t get too excited about this lawsuit. The CEO has rejected repeated requests for funding for personnel and resources to handle the deluge of requests. Villanueva has no intention of hiding the misdeeds of prior administrations, so the whiners are a little premature. I’m sure he’ll find a way with the limited resources he has, much to your dismay.

    • KD – your facts are like your instincts. Crime is down 7% …. really !!!!! I bet those numbers are fudged by the thin ranks of AV’s inner circle cronies and watchdogs, none of whom have any relevant experience in command staff positions.

      To answer your question, I am very happy in my position and no, I did not want to move up the ladder. I am at the end of my long career, and am concerned about the direction of my Department. You may assume I have some vengeful hatched who wants tp paint a dark picture of AV, but I have worked for 5 Sheriff’s in my career and no I was never a McDonnel guy, or a Baca guy. I am LASO and proud of it.

      • Keep Dreaming

        Having online tantrums like a spoiled twelve year old does not make you believable or correct. Go put on your big boy pants, return and interact like an adult.

        • @Dose of Reality,
          LASO is Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. Those of us who were under Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess and Sherman Block are well aware of this.
          Your suspicion only reveals that you were only a kid when LASO was used. 415 Enigma is on bullseye, pay attention as you can learn a thing or two.

          • @Retired LASO – I’m well aware of the old usage of LASO, sir. The more I read of 415’s comments, I believe he’s an insider. I still think he’s a bit overboard on some things, though. Over 30 years on, and I learned not to air our dirty laundry as much as some do.

          • That could be said of McDonnell, incompetent, ignorant, and didn’t give a rats ass about the people he was supposed to lead. The voters wisely removed from office for cause – and you just can’t get over it.

  • @Shad 49; “goose eggs?” Why don’t you talk about the outcome of your case in Federal Court and the fact we have no choice to spend because you keep appealing the outcome.

    You have watched too much tv and seen the county pay too many people, even when they were wrong, because it was cheaper!

    I’ll remind the members that you tried to use $100,000 of their PAC money to defend yourself.

    Let’s see you get some sympathy from that.

    We can’t allow this to ever happen again, and that’s why ALADS has no choice to respond to your appeals.

    Is that deflection enough for you.

    This is not the proper place to talk about these things, but I’m not going to let you bad mouth me or ALADS with insinuations and lies.

    Not a whole lot of people respond on this blog (and a good portion are the same person under a different name), but I know people read this blog, because they tell me they do.

    So, if you don’t want me to “show up” leave me and ALADS out of your personal battles, or like I always say, come down to ALADS and fix what you think is broken.

    The ballots are out and need to be turned in by 1700 hours on Tuesday.

    VOTE!

    • So glad I promoted before you became spokesperson for ALADS but your lies and rank remain the same from 2014.

      As I and anyone else can see, the court summary which is public record BC540789, it clearly contains your name from the beginning and shows that ALADS and NOT the defendant who is appealing that case.

      Again, deflection and lies as not to have those in the dark to see the ineptness of ALADS. Sound familiar?

      You threw wood in someone else’s fire and the backdraft blew up in your face and lightened the pockets of membership by several million. Per the court summary, that tab is still running. All things done in darkness must come to the light

      Any more deflection or tap dancing to contradict public record?

  • @ Ron Hernandez & SHAD 49,

    Ironic how the defendants in that case are long gone while members are obviously still paying.

    While not agreeing with either side, it was pretty sad to see politics and personalities morph in a expensive legal battle where the only winners are the attorneys, specifically the one who is representing ALADS.

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