Requesting Police Video and Audio in Pennsylvania

Open records_logo stackedAct 22 of 2017 (specifically, Chapter 67A of the Act) now governs the process of requesting audio and video recordings in the possession of law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania.

We’ve added a page to the Office of Open Records website which covers the topic in some detail (although it’s always a good idea to review the law itself). Here are some highlights.

Act 22 applies to “any audio recording or video recording made by a law enforcement agency” — the Right-to-Know Law does not apply to requests for those recordings.

Act 22 defines “law enforcement agency” as:

  • The Office of the Attorney General;
  • A District Attorney’s Office; or
  • An agency that employs a law enforcement officer.

Requests for police recordings must:

  • Be sent within 60 days of the recorded event;
  • Be sent to the law enforcement agency’s Open Records Officer;
  • Include the date and time of the event; and
  • Include the requester’s relationship to the event.

In addition, if the recording was made inside a residence, the request must identify every person present (unless their identities are unknown and not reasonably ascertainable).

After receiving a request, the agency has 30 days to respond. A request may be denied if the recording includes:

  • Potential evidence in a criminal matter; or
  • Information pertaining to an investigation or a matter in which a criminal charge has been filed; or
  • Confidential information; or
  • Victim information; and
  • Reasonable redaction will not safeguard the potential evidence or the information.

If a request is granted, the agency can charge “reasonable fees” (which is undefined in the law) for a copy of the recording.

If a request is denied, the requester has 30 days to file an appeal with the appropriate Court of Common Pleas. There’s a $125 filing fee, and the appeal must include:

  • Copies of the request and any response(s);
  • Proof the agency’s Open Records Officer was served with the appeal; and
  • If the recording was made inside a residence, proof that everyone who was in the residence was served with the appeal (unless their identities are unknown and not reasonably ascertainable).

Act 22 does allow for the discretionary release of police recordings: Nothing in the law precludes a law enforcement agency or a prosecuting attorney with jurisdiction from choosing to release an audio or video recording, with or without a written request. (In certain cases, the law enforcement agency can only release the recording with the written permission of the prosecuting attorney.)

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Pennsylvania’s New Medical Marijuana Act

by J. Chadwick Schnee
Assistant Chief Counsel

On April 17, 2016, Governor Wolf signed Senate Bill 3, prime-sponsored by Senator Mike Folmer and also known as the Medical Marijuana Act, into law as Act 16 of 2016. Although the connection between medical marijuana and the Right-to-Know Law may not be obvious, the Medical Marijuana Act contains several provisions involving public access to records related to medical marijuana.

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Open Data Initiative for Pennsylvania

Yesterday, Governor Tom Wolf announced an open data initiative for Pennsylvania, something I’m very excited about. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming months, but for now here’s the Governor’s complete press release (and here’s a link to the Executive Order he signed).

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Governor Wolf Announces Open Data Initiative to Engage Citizens in Innovative Policy Solutions

April 19, 2016

Harrisburg, PA – Governor Wolf signed an executive order today to release agency data to the public in open, machine readable formats.

“One of our most valuable and underutilized resources in state government is data,” said Governor Wolf. “Our goal is to make data available in order to engage citizens, create economic opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs, and develop innovative policy solutions that improve program delivery and streamline operations.”

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Pennsylvania Ranks 4th in Public Access to Info

Earlier this week, the Center for Public Integrity published the results of its 2015 State Integrity Investigation. Each state was ranked in a variety of categories ranging from Political Financing and Electoral Oversight to Procurement and Internal Auditing.

As Executive Director of the Office of Open Records, the category that most interested me was Public Access to Information.

And for Public Access to Information, Pennsylvania ranked 4th in the country.

That’s good news, and I’m proud of that ranking. When you examine the study in detail, it’s evident there are areas which can be improved — but the fact that Pennsylvania is ranked 4th for Public Access to Information is worth celebrating.

With a total of 68 points, Pennsylvania was only ranked behind Iowa (73), Utah (70), and Hawaii (70). (By letter grade, Iowa, Utah, and Hawaii were each given a C- for Public Access to Information; Pennsylvania was given a D+.)

Under the general category of Public Access for Information, states were evaluated on 13 issues. Here’s how Pennsylvania was scored:

  • In law, citizens have a right of access to government information through a defined mechanism. YES
  • In law, citizens have a right of access to private sector information through a defined mechanism. YES
  • In law, there is an entity/ies to monitor the application of access to information laws. MODERATE
  • In law, citizens have a right of appeal if access to government information is denied. YES
  • In law, there is an open data law, requiring the government to publish data online in an open format. NO
  • In practice, branches of government, state agencies and government officials do not claim to be exempt from access to information laws. 100
  • In practice, private sector information related to government information is not claimed to be exempt from access to information laws. 100
  • In practice, the calendars of both the governor and legislators are available to the public. 50
  • In practice, citizens receive responses to access to information requests within a reasonable time period and at no cost. 50
  • In practice, access to information requests are fully answered and/or detailed reasons for denying information are provided. 100
  • In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to access to information requests within a reasonable time period and at no cost. 100
  • In practice, the entity/ies to monitor the application of access to information laws independently initiates investigations and imposes penalties on offenders. 25
  • In practice, government responses to FOI requests are made available in open data format. 0

As you can see, of the 13 issues analyzed, Pennsylvania scored “yes” or “100” on a majority — seven — of them. That’s great, but of course it also means there’s some room for improvement in the other six.

The only two categories where Pennsylvania scored “no” or “0” were both related to open data. OpenDataPhilly is doing good work in this area, as is the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. At the state level, both Hawaii and Utah got good marks for their open data efforts.

The Center for Public Integrity’s page for Pennsylvania goes into a good level of detail explaining each of the grades. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, it’s well worth spending some time reading through their work.

State “Checkbook” Websites

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported that “Every state now runs some kind of public accountability — or ‘checkbook’ — site.”

There are many benefits to such websites. In addition to the obvious increase in transparency, Pew reports, “State financial officials say that checkbook websites can help save money by identifying inefficiencies and reducing the amount of time spent by staff filling information requests. Posting contract information on the websites can result in more competitive bidding and lower bids. For example, interested vendors might see that they could win a contract by offering a lower price, and state agencies might see that they could consolidate contracts to get a better deal.”

Pennsylvania’s checkbook site, PennWATCH, was launched in December 2012. (Rep. Jim Christiana of Beaver County was the original sponsor of legislation to create the site.) I like the PennWATCH site a lot, and it received a solid “B” grade from a recent report (Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data) analyzing all 50 states’ efforts in this area.

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law requires state agencies to post contracts valued at $5,000 or more at the State Treasurer’s website.

Ohio’s checkbook site was singled out in both the Pew analysis and the Following the Money 2015 report as the best such site. It’s definitely worth a look: http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook