APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of El Dorado County, Daniel B. Proud, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. PC 20070750).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Davis, J.
CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION
In this California Public Records Act case (CPRA; Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.), we hold that coroner and autopsy reports that constitute investigations of a suspected homicide death--in which the prospect of criminal law enforcement proceedings is concrete and definite--are public records that are exempt from disclosure under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (f) (hereafter section 6254(f)), of the CPRA. As relevant here, that subdivision exempts from public disclosure "investigatory... files complied by any... local agency for... law enforcement... purposes."*fn1
The bullet-riddled body of Elizabeth Cloer was found in an open field in El Dorado County in June 1971. Thirty-one years later, DNA analysis of evidence from the scene produced a DNA profile apparently matching that of Phillip Arthur Thompson. In April 2008, Thompson was convicted of murdering Cloer.
Kathryn Dixon, the petitioner here, is a news reporter who covered the Thompson murder trial and intends to write a book about it. Pursuant to the CPRA, Dixon requested, before trial had commenced, the complete coroner and autopsy reports regarding Cloer from the El Dorado County Sheriff-Coroner. The request was denied.
Dixon then petitioned the El Dorado County Superior Court for a writ of mandate to obtain the requested reports.
(§ 6259, subd. (a) [setting forth writ procedure for obtaining public records].) The superior court denied the petition after conducting an in camera review of the reports. (Ibid. [the superior court "shall decide the case after examining the [public] record in camera, if permitted by subdivision (b) of Section 915 of the Evidence Code [protecting informant identities, trade secrets and attorney work product]..."].) The superior court ruled the reports were exempt from public disclosure on two independent bases:
(1) under section 6254(f), as "investigatory files of a local agency for law enforcement purposes which involve a definite prospect of criminal law enforcement" (emphasis deleted); and (2) under section 6255, finding that the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
Dixon has petitioned this court for a writ of mandate and we have issued an alternative writ.
Dixon contends that the section 6254(f) exemption does not legally extend to coroner and autopsy reports. She also maintains that the trial court's ruling unconstitutionally restricts freedom of the press.
"A trial court's order... supporting [a public] official's refusal to disclose records under the [CPRA] is immediately reviewable by petition to the appellate court for issuance of an extraordinary writ. (§ 6259, subd. (c); Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1325, 1336.)
Factual findings made by the trial court will be upheld if based on substantial evidence. But the interpretation of the [CPRA], and its application to undisputed facts, present questions of law that are subject to [independent] appellate review. ...