California Senate Bill 1186 (SB 1186), proposed in 2018, would have implemented surveillance transparency, accountability, and oversight measures over the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Justice, and every California police department, sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, and school district and state university public safety department. Had it been enacted, SB 1186 would have required sheriffs to obtain public approval from a county board of supervisors before acquiring and implementing new surveillance technologies. Law enforcement groups that opposed its enactment argued that the bill conflicted with a provision in Section 25303 of the California Government Code that prevents County Boards from obstructing the “investigative function of the sheriff.”
This Note addresses whether law enforcement groups are correct. If so, sheriffs would be exempt from submitting their surveillance use policies for public review to boards of supervisors, thereby limiting civilian oversight of their operations. Because sheriffs are the chief law enforcement officers in unincorporated areas, exempting them from publicly reviewable surveillance use policies would mean that a substantial percentage of Californians living in unincorporated areas would not have the opportunity to engage in civilian oversight. Ultimately, this Note suggests that the language in SB 1186 does not conflict with the aforementioned provisions in Section 25303 because sheriffs act as county actors, not state actors, when submitting a surveillance use policy to a board of supervisors. Consequently, should a bill substantially similar to SB 1186 be submitted to the legislature soon, as is likely, this particular conflict should not impede its passage. Asserting that the mandate of a proactive surveillance use policy obstructs investigative functions of sheriffs misinterprets SB 1186, misreads Section 25303, and suggests law enforcement’s lack of respect for civilian oversight, privacy, and protection of civil liberties.