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 passer-by 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.