San Jose Fire’s Pink Poodle Strip Club Case Won’t Go Away Quietly

The San Jose Mercury News has filed suit against the City of San Jose seeking to obtain records related to the fire department investigation into the Pink Poodle strip club incident and the reported discipline of members involved. The suit was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court pursuant to the state’s public records law.

The incident occurred on October 5, 2022 when a scantily clad woman was filmed exiting San Jose Engine 4 and walking into the Pink Poodle. The video surfaced in social media the following day. An investigation concluded the crew had dropped off a male passenger at the club when the woman jumped on board and refused to leave unless firefighters took her for a ride. Firefighters “reluctantly” accommodated her request by taking her around the block before dropping her off. They then reportedly swung by a bikini bar before returning to quarters.

Back in March, Fire Chief Robert Sapien reported the results of the investigation to the mayor and city council along with an acknowledgement that firefighters had been “appropriately disciplined.” The details of that discipline were not publicly released. An updated report on the incident was released in April.

The Mercury News was apparently unwilling to let the story go, and sought additional records to provide more insight into the investigation and the discipline. The city refused to provide the requested records, prompting Mercury News to file suit. The East Bay Times does a good job of summarizing the entire episode, but the complaint provides a great deal of insight into what led to the suit. Quoting from the complaint:

  • On the evening of October 5, 2022, according to Video posted to an Instagram account, San Jose Fire Department Engine 4, with lights flashing, was parked outside a strip club called the Pink Poodle on South Bascom Avenue in San Jose.
  • A woman in a bikini is seen exiting the vehicle, closing the door then walking towards the Pink Poodle’s entrance.
  • The Video is captioned “Only in San Jose do you see a stripper come out of a firetruck.”
  • As later discovered through GPS tracking information produced by the City in response to a November 16, 2022 California Public Records Act request by The Mercury News, Engine 4 was also tracked to another adult entertainment establishment that night about two miles away called AJ’s Bar, located on Lincoln Avenue in San Jose.
  • On October 7, 2022, after news broke of the incidents, then San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo issued a statement to a Mercury News reporter saying: “If the investigation concludes that his Video is as bad as it looks, then heads must roll. We cannot have a life-critical emergency rescue apparatus relegated to frat party bus, nor tolerate any conduct that so demeans the heroic work of the rest of our SJFD team.”
  • Five months after the incident, San Jose Fire Chief Robert Sapien, Jr. issued his first public statement, describing the actions of the involved fire personnel as “seriously misaligned with the Department’s mission and values and highly detrimental to the confidence and trust of our community and workforce,” and stating that it was taking “appropriate action based on the findings.”
  • While the actions of the involved fire personnel admittedly constitute egregious Violations of the public’s trust with enormous public safety implications, as well as a serious abuse of taxpayer dollars, San Jose has flatly refused to release to The Mercury News, and therefore the public, the completed investigation report, disciplinary records, and related records, invoking the California Public Record Act’s personnel files exemption, Cal. Gov’t Code § 7927.700, and the public interest balancing test, Cal. Gov’t Code § 7922.000, as a basis for its denial.
  • Because the denial decision violates long-standing legal authority pertaining to public access to writings reflecting public employee wrongdoing, The Mercury News brings the instant action seeking an order commanding compliance with the CPRA and Article 1, Section 3(b) of the California Constitution, among other relief.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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