Hawaii’s police union was dealt yet another blow Friday in its efforts to protect police officer misconduct records from public scrutiny.

In a unanimous opinion, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a compelling right of access to officers’ disciplinary files when they are suspended or fired for misconduct, noting that such records are critical to holding police accountable.

More significantly, the court ruled that private parties, such as the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, do not have the right to block government officials from releasing those records to the public.

Hawaii State Supreme Court Building. Aliiolani Hale.
The Hawaii Supreme Court building in downtown Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“We hold that there is no private right of action under UIPA for a party seeking to prevent the release of documents,” the court ruled.

The ruling Friday is the latest in a legal skirmish between Civil Beat, the City and County of Honolulu and SHOPO that has played out over the past few years. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest has been arguing that disciplinary files, including arbitration reports, are public.

Friday’s decision memorialized the high court’s ruling last year to release an arbitrator’s report on why HPD Sgt. Darren Cachola was given his job back after being fired by police administrators.

Cachola was fired in 2015 after he was caught on surveillance video physically fighting with his girlfriend in a Waipahu restaurant. The incident sparked widespread community outrage and legislative hearings focused on domestic violence and raised questions about how HPD responds to misconduct within the department.

The Police Files Project Badge

Civil Beat had asked the Honolulu Police Department for a copy of the arbitration decision in 2018 under the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act.

Before HPD could release the records SHOPO sued, arguing among other things that the UIPA didn’t allow for the release of the decision and that providing the records would violate Cachola’s privacy rights.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed.

In its 70-page ruling, the high court made clear that the public has a “compelling” interest in knowing about officer misconduct and how it is investigated, citing prior rulings that essentially said the same.

The court pointed out that the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill in 2020 that eliminated a unique, SHOPO-backed exemption in the UIPA that stated officers’ disciplinary files could only be released in cases that resulted in discharge.

The union has tried numerous times to challenge that law, now known as Act 47, but has failed.

The court made clear in its ruling that the public has a right to many different types of records related to officer misconduct, including arbitration decisions, closing reports and investigative files. It also noted that just because an exemption exists in the UIPA, doesn’t mean an agency has to exercise it to deny records.

SHOPO President Malcolm Lutu was not immediately available for comment.

Read the opinion here:

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