Court weighs when pub­lic can view state po­lice videos

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Mark Scol­foro

PHILADEL­PHIA >> Po­lice dash cam­era videos that are rou­tinely re­leased in other states could be­come more avail­able for pub­lic view in Penn­syl­va­nia un­der a case ar­gued Wed­nes­day be­fore the state Supreme Court.

A state po­lice lawyer voiced strong op­po­si­tion, say­ing ex­ist­ing law largely pre­vents dis­clo­sure and warn­ing a change in pol­icy could be costly for po­lice agen­cies, com­pro­mise in­ves­ti­ga­tions and ex­pose details about pri­vate cit­i­zens against their wishes.

The le­gal dis­pute be­gan when a woman sought copies of dash cam video from a 2014 traf­fic ac­ci­dent near State Col­lege that in­volved her friend.

The jus­tices must de­cide whether to up­hold a lower court rul­ing that granted ac­cess to the videos, or up­hold re­stric­tions on dis­clo­sure fa­vored by the state po­lice and lo­cal govern­ment groups. As stan­dard prac­tice, the court didn’t in­di­cate when it might rule.

The case in­volves dis­putes over what con­sti­tutes in­ves­tiga­tive ma­te­rial that po­lice can with­hold and the bal­ance of pro­vi­sions in state laws that ad­dress ac­cess to pub­lic records, han­dling of crim­i­nal his­tory in­for­ma­tion and wire­tap­ping rules.

Michelle Grove asked state po­lice for the videos taken in the af­ter­math of the crash in Pot­ters Mills, a cross­roads about 15 miles east of State Col­lege. One driver was cited for not wear­ing a seat­belt and the other for fail­ing to yield.

Grove said last year that she ar­rived about the same time as po­lice, and her own ob­ser­va­tions and the writ­ten po­lice re­port gave her doubts about the fair­ness and ac­cu­racy of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The state po­lice turned Grove down, but the Of­fice of Open Records and Com­mon­wealth Court sided with her. Com­mon­wealth Court gave her ac­cess to one video with­out au­dio and asked the records of­fice to re­view the other to see if wit­ness state­ments, “ut­ter­ances of pri­vate cit­i­zens who had no no­tice of the record­ing” or in­ves­tiga­tive ma­te­rial needed to be redacted. State po­lice ap­pealed.

A state po­lice at­tor­ney said in court Mon­day that state law re­stricts ac­cess to the pub­lic to dis­cov­ery in civil or crim­i­nal mat­ters — they have to be ei­ther a lit­i­gant or de­fen­dant to seek the record­ings. The state po­lice also ar­gued that ev­ery re­sponse by law en­force­ment has the po­ten­tial to turn into a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion — the sort of ma­te­rial that is ex­plic­itly not a pub­lic record.

State po­lice ar­gued in a brief filed in July that mo­bile ve­hi­cle recorders need only “re­late to” an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to be ex­empt from dis­clo­sure un­der Penn­syl­va­nia’s crim­i­nal records law.

“A crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a very broad term,” state po­lice at­tor­ney An­drew Ron­gaus told the jus­tices. He said the agency did not want to try cases “in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.”

The state as­so­ci­a­tions of town­ship su­per­vi­sors and county com­mis­sion­ers said in a fil­ing with the court that forc­ing agen­cies to dis­close such videos would be costly and time con­sum­ing, a “minute-by-minute, or po­ten­tially even sec­ond-by-sec­ond, re­view.”

Ron­gaus warned jus­tices the process would re­quire spe­cial­ized equip­ment and con­sid­er­able em­ployee time.

Grove’s lawyer, He­len Stoli­nas, said tech­nol­ogy will only im­prove, eas­ing the process of black­ing out non-re­leasable ma­te­rial. She ar­gued that in­ter­ac­tions be­tween peo­ple and po­lice that have raised ques­tions about po­lice ac­tions are a “strong jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” to make the videos pub­lic.

“We are not con­ced­ing that po­lice re­sponse to a traf­fic in­ci­dent is the be­gin­ning of a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Stoli­nas told the court, adding that the Right-to-Know Law does not de­fine “crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Grove’s lawyers have ar­gued the tape with­out sound is no dif­fer­ent than the in­for­ma­tion a passerby might ob­tain by driv­ing by the scene of an ac­ci­dent.

The Penn­syl­va­nia NewsMe­dia As­so­ci­a­tion and the Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press said in a friend-of-the-court brief that not ev­ery­thing po­lice do is in­ves­ti­ga­tory and the Leg­is­la­ture did not in­tend for the Right-to-Know Law to cloak an en­tire cat­e­gory of records in se­crecy.

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