By Austin Nolen
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral argument today in a closely watched case which will determine whether dashcam videos from police cars are public records in Pennsylvania.
The case, Pennsylvania State Police v. Grove, may also have an important effect on how agencies treat bodycam videos and other electronic records.
The matter began as a request by State College-area photographer Michelle Grove for dashcam videos of a traffic stop near her home, but when the State Police denied her request, she appealed to the state Office of Open Records, which hears records disputes.
The Office of Open Records ruled in Grove’s favor, prompting the State Police to petition the Commonwealth Court, where Grove also prevailed. In a final attempt to prevent release of the records, the State Police then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The State Police, represented by Andrew Rongaus, Assistant Counsel for the agency, argued the videos are exempt from release as investigative records under the Right to Know Law and Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act, as well as under the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.
In response, Grove’s attorney, Helen Stolinas, argued that because the Right to Know Law was designed to increase government transparency, its limits on agencies’ duty to disclose records must be viewed narrowly, placing dashcam videos outside of the criminal investigation exemption.
Stolinas also argued that the videos are not investigation records under CHRIA’s definition and that the Wiretapping Act does not apply, because the drivers on the video should have expected their conversations with the police were recorded.
The Commonwealth Court also ordered the State Police to withhold certain portions of audio from the videos in order to make them suitable for release. The agency objected, arguing that altering video is more time-consuming and costly than creating black boxes on paper documents.
However, Stolinas pointed out, as increasing numbers of records are stored digitally, allowing agencies to treat electronic records differently than paper records would seriously undermine the Right to Know Law.
While Grove’s case was the only set of facts before the Justices, the wider context in which the argument occurred was clear to all participants. Justice David Wecht, for instance, asked Rongaus if the State Police would also argue that bodycam videos are completely exempt from disclosure, to which Rongaus replied they would.
Dashcam videos themselves have also played a role in the recent debate over police use of force. It was a dashcam video uncovered by independent journalist Brandon Smith that helped lead to murder charges against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
Rongaus asserted that it was adequate for police and prosecutors to have access to the videos to investigate controversial police actions, but Stolinas argued that the public has an independent interest in seeing the videos.
As she wrote in her brief, “denying this citizen’s request for records seriously limits the ability of the public to inquire into the actions of its public servants and to hold them accountable. One of the primary purposes of these videos is oversight, and that oversight should not be limited to state officials.”
View selected documents from Grove case below:
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