The bill establishes a more restrictive process for obtaining video than the courts have provided for under the Right to Know Law.
The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill on October 19 that would prohibit police body camera footage from being released under the state’s Right to Know Law. The bill now moves to the General Assembly, where it is expected to pass. Governor Wolf has not yet indicated whether he supports the legislation.
Senate Bill 976 amends the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act, 18 Pa. C.S. §§ 5701 et seq., to permit police officers to use body cameras or dashboard cameras with both audio and video recording capabilities. But the controversy related to the law is that it bars access to these recordings under the Right to Know Law, which was designed to expand access to government records.
Bill 976 instead establishes a separate and more restrictive process for requesting the video from law enforcement agencies, requiring individuals seeking access to file a request within 14 days of when the recording was made; identify every person in the video, sight unseen; and pay costs set at the discretion of the police organization. Law enforcement agencies may deny access requests if they relate to an “investigation,” which is defined broadly. The bill also imposes a significant fee of $250 for appealing any denial of body camera video requests to the Court of Common Pleas. If passed, the Office of Open Records (OOR), an independent quasi-judicial agency created to hear appeals of denials of public records, would have no jurisdiction to decide whether the video should be released to the public. The OOR routinely rules on whether records of local and state police agencies are available, but under Bill 976 would have no involvement in police camera footage.
The body camera legislation would overturn a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision providing for the release of police video recordings under the Right to Know Law, Pa. State Police v. Grove, 119 A.3d 1102 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2015), and do so before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court releases its opinion in the appeal from the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court’s decision held that the fact that a police video “had some connection to a criminal proceeding” did not necessarily mean it was barred from public release as a record involved in an active police investigation. Id. at 1108. The court observed that, in the Grove case, the Pennsylvania State Police used these cameras to “document the entire interaction and actions of the trooper, including actions which have no investigative content, such as directions to motorists in a traffic stop or at an accident scene, police pursuits, and prisoner transports,” and therefore the recordings did not fall under the exception for ongoing police investigations under the Right to Know Law. Id. The Pennsylvania State Police, which opposes the release of police body camera footage, appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard argument on the issue on September 14, 2016.
Other states, such as North Carolina, have passed legislation similar to Pennsylvania’s Bill 976 limiting public access to police body camera footage. But the Obama administration and national policing experts have championed both the broader use and public release of law enforcement body camera video to promote police accountability and foster better understanding of police interactions with the public.