December 6, 2016
Dash cam video recorded by police officers in the course of their duties is a public record generally available upon request, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In a 7-0 ruling, the court said that some exceptions could be made for materials deemed to be investigatory work product by police, but that in general the recordings should be open to the public.
“The dash-cam recordings at issue here qualify as ‘records’ because they memorialize the activities of employees of the [Ohio State Highway Patrol,” Justice Judith French wrote in the majority opinion. “The dash-cam recordings fit within the definition of a ‘record’ because they document governmental activities, decisions, and operations during a traffic stop and pursuit.”
You can read the full opinion below. Mobile users click here.
What was the case?
The case arose from a 2015 high-speed police chase on Interstate 71 in Southwest Ohio that ended in a crash. Cameras in Ohio State Highway Patrol cruisers recorded the chase and the crash scene investigation.
The Cincinnati Enquirer sued the Ohio Department of Public Safety, the agency that oversees the highway patrol, after the patrol refused to release the video.
The patrol cited a ruling by the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals, the appellate court for several counties surrounding Cincinnati, in which the court held the videos qualified as confidential investigative materials.
The Enquirer filed suit in the Ohio Supreme Court in March 2015, asking it to order the release of the videos and pay its attorney fees.
What did the court say?
Ohio law allows public access to records kept by police agencies, just as it does for other public offices. The term ‘records,’ French wrote, applies to any materials, regardless of physical form, that document “the organization, policies, functions, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of a public office.”
But Ohio law also recognizes that the government may have legitimate reasons to keep some records from open access. The General Assembly has created specific exceptions under which records can be withheld. The patrol cited one of those exceptions when it claimed the dash-cam video recordings showed material that was a product of criminal investigation.
But the court disagreed, overruling the previous appellate court decision.
“A record that merely pertains to a law-enforcement matter does not constitute a confidential law-enforcement investigatory record unless the release of the record would create a high probability of disclosure of specific investigatory work product,” French wrote.
That determination must be done on a case-by-case basis. For this case, the court ruled that 90 seconds of the recording – an interview of the driver who patrol officers were chasing, qualified as investigatory work product.
What was the dissent?
The other six members of the court – Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy and William O’Neill – agreed that the records should be open to the public.
O’Neill, while concurring in the ruling dissented on whether the state should have to pay the Enquirer’s legal fees in the case.
The majority held the patrol had acted in good faith in rejecting the Enquirer’s request for the dash-cam video and therefore should not be liable for attorney fees.
“It is wrong for this court to recognize the clear public interest in police dash-cam recordings and then to deny the Enquirer reasonable attorney fees after it shed light on this ongoing dispute between the state’s need for privacy and the public’s right to know what is going on,” O’Neill wrote. [READ MORE]