State Supreme Court: No blanket exemption for withholding police dashboard camera footage

By Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A divided state Supreme Court has ruled that police dashboard cameras can’t be withheld from public disclosure unless they relate to pending litigation.

Five of the high court’s members said last week the Seattle Police Department wrongly used a state statute as a blanket exemption to the state’s public records act when it denied providing dashboard camera videos to a reporter with KOMO-TV.

Their Thursday ruling overturns a 2012 King County Superior Court judge’s ruling that said the department could withhold the videos for three years.

The statute being cited exempts from disclosures some recordings made by police.

Four of the justices agreed that the statute in question was an exception to the state’s public records act.

But they also noted that exemptions must be narrowly interpreted and “does not create a blanket exemption for any video that might be the subject of litigation”

“Neither the statutory text nor the legislative history suggests that categorical delay was legislative purpose,” wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez, joined by Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Justice Pro Tem. James Johnson.

McCloud wrote a separate concurrence opinion in which she stated that while she agreed with the majority’s resolution of the KOMO case, she disagreed with their finding that the statute can still exempt such recordings from disclosure, noting that such videos in the midst of active litigation are played in open court and thus public.

The majority awarded KOMO attorney fees and sent the case back to the lower court.

Four justices argued that the statute was clear that the recordings should not be released to the public until completion of any criminal or civil litigation.

“An intent to exclude these videos from disclosure to retain the privacy of the citizens is clear from the text of the present statutory scheme, and the inquiry should end there,” wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst, joined by Justices Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens and Charles Wiggins.

All nine justices found that the Police Department did not violate the state’s public records act when it said it had no responsive records to Tracy Vedder’s request for police officer log sheets.

The entire court was also in agreement in saying the department violated the law when it told Vedder it didn’t have response records for a list of all digital in-car video and audio recordings.

John Schochet, deputy chief of state for the city attorney’s office, said via email that his office was studying the decision and working with police on coming into compliance with the court decisions.

KOMO spokeswoman Holly Gauntt said the station was ecstatic, “not just for KOMO but for all media across Washington and quite frankly for the citizens of our state.”

“It was blatantly unfair and unethical for the Police Department to try and keep potentially incriminating videos out of the public’s view,” Gauntt said by email.

The case is Fisher Broadcasting v. City of Seattle.

Last modified: June 16. 2014 6:12PM
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