LDF: Supporting Your Right to Privacy

Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 at 12:00PM
Posted by Alison Berry Wilkinson

If you picked up today’s newspaper and saw your name, employment classification and exact earnings (salary, plus benefits, plus overtime) published on the front page, would you feel violated? Most police officers would. But, routinely, newspapers are asking for such information, local agencies are providing it, and earnings information is published for all to read.

In an effort to stop such routine violations of officer privacy rights, the PORAC Legal Defense Fund has joined the battle by granting affirmative relief and funding in a case entitled Contra Costa Newspapers Group v. City of Oakland. In that case, the newspapers asked for individualized salary information for all City of Oakland employees who earned over $100,000 in salary plus overtime. After the Oakland Police Officers’ Association (POA) threatened to sue the city if it released the information, the city declined to provide the newspapers with the information. The newspapers then sued the city, and the Oakland POA joined in the litigation. The case is now before the Appellate Court for a determination of whether the confidentiality mandates of Penal Code Section 832.7 prevent the newspapers from obtaining individualized peace officer salary information.

The newspapers sought the information under the California Public Records Act, which is found at Government Code Section 6250 et seq.. However, that same act (in section 6254(k)) exempts from disclosure those records, “the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law.” Because Penal Code section 832.7 prohibits the disclosure of confidential personnel file information except under very limited circumstances that do not include a newspaper’s desire to publish, the Oakland POA argued that the city was prohibited from disclosing the information to the newspapers.

The Oakland POA is arguing that individualized salary information constitutes “personal data” under Penal Code section 832.8, subsection (a), and is, therefore, specifically exempt from disclosure. Certainly, no data can be more “personal” for an individual than specific salary and earnings information. That argument is supported by the decision in City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 883, 891, which held that salary information is exempt from disclosure under Penal Code section 832.7, except in family law proceedings.

The Oakland POA further argues that in order to compile the total annual earnings of an Oakland police officer, information from the individual’s confidential personnel records must be accessed. The employee’s rate of pay is determined by his or her educational background, employment history, and years of service, qualifications for specialties that permit additional premium pay, as well as their advancement through the ranks, or discipline he or she may have suffered. Thus, the total earnings of any individual peace officer are inextricably intertwined with confidential information maintained in the officer’s personnel file. The Oakland POA’s analysis is supported by Hackett v. Superior Court, 13 Cal. App. 4th 1411 (1995), which prevented a litigant from obtaining indirectly that information which was privileged under Penal Code section 832.7.

Hopefully, the 2003 decision in Teamsters Local 856 v Priceless, LLC 112 Cal App 4th 1500, will be persuasive to the Appeals Court. That case upheld the privacy and confidentiality of police personnel records related to individualized earnings of police officers.

Newspapers statewide are routinely seeking similar information. Hopefully, the PORAC Legal Defense Fund’s support of the Oakland POA’s challenge to the routine release of such information will secure important rights for officers throughout the state. This and other issues related to peace officer privacy rights will be discussed at PORAC’s April Issues Symposium.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.