California Restricts Access to Criminal Defendants' Records

California prosecutors, in light of a recent state attorney general's opinion, may no longer release routine information about the arrest records or parole status of criminal defendants to avoid violating their privacy rights.

The opinion from Attorney General Bill Lockyer fundamentally alters prosecutors' relationship with the public, said Thomas W. Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

"The public's interest to disclose outweighs the privacy interest of the accused. It may be time for the Legislature to take another look at what is a fair balance," Newton said.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said he, too, favors legislation to restore the public's right to know.

"There's a real interest for the public to know criminal histories at certain times and in context," Cooley said.

Newton cited cases in which someone is charged with a violent crime.

"The public wants to know who is this person. Part of who that person is, is what that person has or has not done in the past," Newton said. "The public wants and needs to know just who they're dealing with."

Lockyer's opinion, issued Sept. 20, said prosecutors may not produce records on previous offenses and parole or probation status. It also advised against releasing lists of cases in which a witness has testified and names of defendants charged with a specific kind of crime over a number of years.

"It is quite a major change from what we have provided in the past," said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Lael Rubin. "The Los Angeles D.A. has had a history of favoring the public's right to know rather than keeping information secret."

Newton said the opinion "will almost certainly be universally followed" by prosecutors throughout California. Attorney general's opinions do not have the force of law, as would a court ruling, but are considered authoritative and frequently are followed.

The opinion joins a recent decision by the California Supreme Court that significantly narrowed the public's access to bedrock information about the criminal justice system by restricting disclosure of police disciplinary records.