MFIA Clinic, ACLU Sue LAPD Over Access to Public Documents


The ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic filed a lawsuit on April 25, 2017 against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) alleging flagrant violations of the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

The lawsuit argues that the LAPD has consistently disregarded the 1968 act that stipulates an agency must respond to a request for public records within, at most, 24 days. Instead, the LAPD often refuses to respond to requests by journalists and others for months or even years, and in many cases does not respond at all. In cases where documents are finally released, the agency often only partly fulfills the lawful requests, according to the lawsuit.

“Access to information about the conduct of government agencies is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,” said Adrienna Wong ’10, attorney with the ACLU SoCal. “The LAPD’s stonewalling and disregard of legal requests denies the public’s right to know.”

Joining the ACLU SoCal as plaintiffs in the suit are:

•   Investigative reporter Ali Winston, who has written about law enforcement and surveillance issues for several outlets including the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

•   Kelly Lytle Hernandez, an associate professor at UCLA’s Department of History, who is one of the nation’s leading historians of race, policing, immigration and incarceration.

•   Shawn Nee, a community activist and award-winning photographer.

"LAPD’s intransigence on records concerning surveillance technology are direct matters of concern for the public,” said Winston, who has experienced unwarranted denial and delay of CPRA requests. “The technologies I’ve asked about — Palantir data-mining software, facial recognition for video cameras and powerful cell-site simulators used by the Pentagon and NSA — all have direct impact on Angelenos’ right to privacy that is guaranteed by the state constitution.”

"Government transparency has been a tenet of U.S. democracy since the nation's beginning," said Brandon Sadowsky '18. "The LAPD's persistent failure to provide important information to the public undermines our longstanding commitment to transparency as well as the public's ability to hold the LAPD accountable."

According to the ACLU and MFIA clinic, by disregarding CPRA requests, the LAPD undermines public access to information, which is the central purpose of the act. Its practices also go against the tide of law enforcement agencies across the nation that are offering more transparency to gain community trust

The lawsuit asks the court for a permanent injunction to compel the department to comply with the CPRA.

John Langford '14, Clinical Lecturer in Law and Abrams Fellow for the MFIA Clinic, remaked about the significance of the case. 

 “We’re very proud of clinic members Allison Douglis '18, Brandon Sadowsky '18, and Regina Wang '18, and former clinic members Kathleen Choi '18 and Brian O’Connor '18, who each poured a tremendous amount of work and energy into building this case from the ground up.” 

Langford said the filing was a coming of age moment for the clinic as Wong helped found the MFIAclinic as a student at Yale Law School in 2009.  Now a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, Wong brought the case to the clinic and is co-counseling the matter, providing the students with expert guidance on strategic litigation.

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) is a law student clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation and developing policy initiatives.

Update: On May 22, 2017, the Los Angeles Times published Dear LAPD: You are not exempt from the Public Records Act, an op-ed article on the ongoing MFIA suit. The article, written by attorney Alan Rader, castigates the LAPD for refusing to meet its legal obligations to disclose data in a timely manner.