By Peter Hall Of The Morning Call
In a decision that opens up public access to police videos, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled state police dashboard camera footage of the aftermath of a car crash must be released under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.
Although it recognized there may be situations when police videos cannot be released because they are part of investigations, the Supreme Court found there’s no blanket rule against releasing such recordings.
Bucking state police arguments to keep the videos out of the public realm, a 5-2 majority found decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis on whether exceptions for investigative material apply, and police have the burden to show why a video is exempt from release.
Public record watchdogs called the court’s decision a significant victory for access to police records at a time when there’s a growing demand for information about how police do their jobs.
“Citizens should care because it gives them the ability to access police dash camera video, which will help them understand police interaction in the community and provide accountability,” said Melissa Melewsky, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case on behalf of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
State police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said the decision is under review by the agency’s lawyers.
The Supreme Court’s ruling upholds decisions by Commonwealth Court and the state Office of Open Records that granted a Centre County woman’s request for state police dashboard video camera recordings of a car crash in which her friend was involved.
The case dealt specifically with video taken by cameras mounted on the dashboards of cruisers driven by state troopers who responded to the 2014 crash, but it could apply to other kinds of video recording by police, such as body cameras, Melewsky said.
That’s because the high court’s ruling hinges on the fact that the videos were created in the normal course of the troopers’ carrying out their duties, not because they were investigating a crime.
The victory for public access may be short-lived, however, as a bill that creates a blanket exemption from the Right-to-Know Law for police video and audio recordings passed the state House on Tuesday. The Senate must now sign off on changes before sending it to Gov. Tom Wolf. His spokesman said Wolf supports the bill “as a step in the right direction.”
Senate Bill 560 creates a new procedure for public access to police recordings that Melewsky called onerous.
“There are significant public access problems with Senate Bill 560,” she said.
In the Supreme Court majority’s opinion, Justice Kevin Dougherty rejected arguments by the state police that dashboard video recordings are criminal investigative records, which are exempt from release under the Right-to-Know Law and barred from release under the state’s Criminal History Information and Records Act.
Drawing on a statement from the state police right-to-know officer, Dougherty found that state police activate their vehicles’ dashboard cameras in non-investigative situations, including at crash scenes, during pursuits and when carrying prisoners.
The state police retain dashboard video recordings when a person in the video indicates they intend to use it in a civil lawsuit, the state police right-to-know officer said. That, Dougherty wrote, supports a conclusion that police dashboard videos are not always related to criminal investigations.
Dougherty wrote the Commonwealth Court, which previously ruled the videos should be released, correctly determined that the part of the Centre County video — a trooper’s interviews with the drivers — that did relate to an investigation could be redacted before the videos’ release. The state police contended troopers used the interviews, in part, as the basis to give the drivers traffic tickets.
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy disagreed with the majority, filing their own opinions that said regardless of whether videos lead to the filing of criminal charges, they are part of the troopers’ investigative process.
The majority also rejected the argument that requiring state police to edit the trooper’s interviews forced the agency to create a new record, which is prohibited by the Right-to-Know Law. Dougherty compared it to blacking out lines in a printed document.
Office of Open Records Deputy Director Nathan Byerson said the ruling clarifies how agencies are to redact video recordings to comply with the Right-to-Know Law, but added that as requests for such records increase, there is likely to be more legal wrangling over how videos are edited.