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A state appeal court on Thursday refused to throw open for public viewing a public defender’s database, which a dissenting justice said allowed for the collection of invasive dossiers on police and other officials. San Diego’s Fourth District Court of Appeal said the database, used by the San Diego County public defender’s office to access information in client files, was not a public record under the California Public Records Act. “These are private functions to which the public defender is entitled to maintain a level of independence equivalent to a private attorney,” Justice James McIntyre wrote for the court. The purpose of assembling the information in the database, he continued, “is to assist in the defense of existing and future clients, a private function not relating to the conduct of the public’s business.” Justice Gilbert Nares concurred, but Justice Richard Huffman dissented, calling the database information “government snooping” and accusing the PD’s office of maintaining “dossiers” on individual police officers, public officials or average citizens. “The public defender’s office is a governmental agency,” he wrote, “and no matter how lofty its stated purposes, it is still not entitled to collect intelligence files on citizens without some form of protection for the privacy rights of those citizens.” Eight police officers associations had sued San Diego County PD Steven Carroll and his office after learning through a newspaper account that Carroll maintained an electronic database containing existing client files supplemented by information from a variety of public sources. The police officers feared that the database could contain peace officer personnel records and inaccurate information that could be misused someday, especially if an officer was accused of misconduct. They asked to view the database, but were refused. San Diego County Superior Court Judge William Nevitt Jr. ruled that the files were not public records, and the appeal court agreed. It also held that even if the database was presumed to be a public record, it would be exempt from disclosure through the public records act’s “catch-all” exemption. “Under [Government Code] section 6255,” the court held, “a public agency may withhold a public record for policy reasons if it can demonstrate that ‘on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.’ “Requiring the public defender to disclose the contents of its database on demand,” the court wrote, “would be detrimental to the public interest in providing legal representation to indigent criminal defendants.” Justice Huffman accused Justices McIntyre and Nares of failing to follow the “rational processes” of the public records act. “Instead, the majority has created a strange beast: a publicly owned set of files, not maintained in connection with the representation of any individual client, which are, at the same time, a little bit public and a little bit private,” he wrote. “I suggest it has described a critter unknown to the California Legislature.” The case is Coronado Police Officers Association v. Carroll, D039198. The full text of the opinion will appear in Monday’s California Daily Opinion Service.

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