HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s highest court said Tuesday the public should have access to dash camera video footage unless the police agency can prove it amounts to criminal investigative material and may be redacted.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in favor of a lower-court decision granting access to video shot by the dash cameras of two state troopers’ vehicles as they responded to a 2014 crash near State College. The majority says police vehicle recordings, as a general rule, are not exempt from public disclosure.
The state police had argued the recordings always contain criminal investigative material, but Justice Kevin Dougherty wrote that such determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis.
In the dispute before the court, he said, the video showed troopers investigating the crash scene and talking to the drivers and bystanders.
The decision said the only part of the recordings that is potentially investigative was the audio from witness interviews — portions that had been ordered redacted by a lower court.
“PSP simply does not explain how the video portion of the (recordings) captured any criminal investigation,” Dougherty wrote.
State police had argued the videos should be exempt under the Right-to-Know Law and a state law limiting access to criminal records. An agency spokesman said the case was under review.
The state associations of county commissioners and township supervisors had supported the state police’s position, arguing the response to a traffic crash made the recordings investigative in nature.
The requester, Michelle Grove, wanted videos taken after a crash in Potters Mills, about 15 miles east of State College. One driver was cited for not wearing a seatbelt and the other for failing to yield.
Grove’s lawyer, Helen Stolinas, called the decision “a decisive victory for the citizens of Pennsylvania and the press to remain aware of the activities of state and local officials and be able to scrutinize how public servants are performing their duties.”
In a dissent, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor argued state law provided for a broad criminal-investigative exception to access.
The other dissent , by Justice Sallie Mundy, said video without sound can provide investigative information, citing as examples “a witness’s demeanor, physical condition and gestures, which give context to the statements provided. As such, they are as related to the inquiry as are the contents of the statements.”
Unlike in some other states, video from police dash cameras is not widely available in Pennsylvania, largely because police agencies have deemed the information to be exempt under the Right-to-Know Law and the Criminal History Record Information Act.
Melissa Melewsky, lawyer for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the Supreme Court’s ruling should mean more footage will become available.
“I would hope that would be the result,” she said. “The court was clear that just because police are involved in gathering the video, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s investigatory under the law.”
In November, a survey of public access by Pennsylvania newspapers found 10 of 25 requests for dash camera footage were denied by police agencies on the basis of those laws. In 10 other instances, police said they didn’t have the tapes. Five departments disclosed at least some of what their officers’ vehicle cameras recorded at the specific incidents sought by requesters.