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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Presentation at Body-Worn Cameras CLE

Open records_logo stackedOn Friday, I took part in Forensic Friday, a regular program organized by Duquesne University’s Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.

The topic was Balancing Safety, Justice and Privacy: Body-Worn Cameras, Forensic Evidence & the Right to Know.

Also taking part in the program were State Senator Randy Vulakovich; State Representative Dom Costa; former State Representative David Mayernik; Commander Clarence Trapp, head of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s Special Deployment Division; and Duquesne University School of Law Professor John Rago.

It was a great event and a great discussion, and I very much appreciate the invitation to participate.

Here’s the presentation I used:

Body-Worn Cameras CLE – Jan. 27, 2017 – PDF
Body-Worn Cameras CLE – Jan. 27, 2017 – PPTX

Body-Worn Cameras, Forensic Evidence & the Right to Know

Forensic Fridays LogoOn Friday, January 27, I’ll be taking part in Forensic Friday, a regular program organized by Duquesne University’s Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.

The topic is Balancing Safety, Justice and Privacy: Body-Worn Cameras, Forensic Evidence & the Right to Know.

Also part of the program are State Senator Randy Vulakovich; State Representative Dom Costa; former State Representative David Mayernik; Commander Clarence Trapp, head of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s Special Deployment Division; and Duquesne University School of Law Professor John Rago, who has been working closely with state legislators to develop legislation governing the use of body-worn cameras.

The program is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is approved by the Pennsylvania CLE Board for 3 hours of substantive CLE credit, by the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work for 3 hours of Social Work credit, and by the Pennsylvania Coroners Education Board for 1 hour of Coroners Education credit.

Here’s a fuller description from the University:

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2nd Commonwealth Court Decision on MVRs

Commonwealth Court has again ruled that mobile video recordings (MVRs), such as dashcam videos, are public records.

In the new case, Pennsylvania State Police v. Casey Grove, the court upheld an Office of Open Records decision and found that the case “is virtually indistinguishable” from the first (PSP v. Michelle Grove, which I wrote about here).

PSP has appealed the first case to the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to hear the appeal.

Commonwealth Court: MVR Videos Are Public

Commonwealth Court today issued an opinion (Pennsylvania State Police v. Michelle Grove) holding that “video recordings of interaction between law enforcement officers and members of the public in a public place” are not exempt from disclosure and, thus, are public records under the Right-to-Know Law. Such recordings are commonly referred to as dash cam videos or MVRs (“mobile vehicle recordings”).

Senior Judge James Gardner Colins authored the opinion, which held that “as documentation of law enforcement officers’ conduct in carrying out their duties, MVRs are at the core [of] the RTKL’s purpose of enabling the public to ‘scrutinize the actions of public officials, and make public officials accountable for their actions'” (quoting Pennsylvania State Police v. McGill, 83 A.3d at 479).

The case was remanded to the Office of Open Records for further review related to the audio component of one of the videos and Pennsylvania’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, aka the Wiretap Act.

More coverage: