As more and more police departments equip their officers with body and dashboard cameras, the authorities are struggling to determine when and if their footage should be released to the public. Is the footage public record, or is it privileged material that should only be released under certain circumstances? The state legislature has failed to reach the consensus necessary to pass a law on the question, which is left up to the municipalities.
California law enforcement departments have different policies governing the release of dashboard and body cam videos. Most departments only allow such footage to be viewed in court or in police conduct review hearings – although Oakland has released some body cam videos through public records requests. However, a new court ruling concerning the release of dash cam footage shows a loosening and harmonizing of California’s regulations – which by extension may also apply to body cam footage in future cases.
California Courts Rule that Dash Cam Videos Are Disclosable
The status quo has been turned on its head by a recent California District Court of Appeal case, which held that the dashboard camera video showing the arrest of a suspect by the Eureka police department was not a confidential law enforcement officer personnel record. As such, it could be disclosed to the public under the California Public Records Act. The California Supreme Court approved the lower court’s ruling, allowing it to be cited as precedent in similar cases.
Under California law, confidential peace officer personnel records include documents generated in relation to the officer’s “advancement, appraisal or discipline.” The Appeals Court reasoned that a dash cam video was not a personnel record because it was generated independently from any effort to advance, appraise, or discipline the officer. Although the footage may eventually become part of an investigation or a disciplinary action against the officer, it doesn’t have to be considered part of the personnel file.
California State Legislature Struggles to Codify Body Cam Footage Release Standards
It is still unclear whether courts will approach police body cam videos as they have dash cam footage. Law enforcement agencies may put up even stiffer resistance to the loosening of disclosure requirements to body cam footage, which may compromise officers. Indeed, law enforcement and their lobbyists have so far blocked the California legislature from passing any bills that relate to standards for the release of body cam footage to the public.
One bill that failed to pass last year, SB 175, was defeated even though it did little more than mirror federal standards on the issue. This year, two bills are under consideration. But, as legislator Bill Quirk, who sponsored one of the bills, stated: “Frankly, I don’t know if any of the bills, including mine, will be [able to pass] this year.” Such is the controversy surrounding the potential release of footage from police departments.
Either proposed body cam footage law would allow for public access. The difference between the two is that Quirk’s bill would allow the footage to be released sooner, and regardless of whether criminal or civil cases are ongoing. The fundamental issue is whether body cam footage should be protected as evidence of impartial proceedings, or whether the public should be given the right to know what actually happened in a given incident.
In any case, the use of dashboard or body-mounted cameras is increasing the transparency of law enforcement activities in California. For some criminal defendants, the use of footage has revealed their innocence or the authorities’ abuse of power.
Call McElfresh Law Today
If you’ve been convicted of a crime, your San Diego criminal lawyer should review the body and dash cam footage of your arrest–it may prove central to your defense. To learn more about how a lawyer can help, call McElfresh Law today at (858) 756-7107 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.