A California appeals court ruled this week that dash camera footage is not part of an officer’s confidential personnel record, even though it was used in an internal affairs investigation against the officer. The Court of Appeal ruled in City of Eureka v. Superior Court (Thadeus Greenson) (1st Dist., July 19, 2016) that Pitchess statutes do not protect this kind of video footage from being released to the public.
Eureka Police Sergeant Adam Laird and other officers arrested a juvenile suspected of gang activity. After the incident, the Eureka Police Department opened an internal affairs investigation into Sergeant Laird’s conduct, eventually deciding to fire him. And the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office charged Laird with misdemeanor assault by a police officer without lawful authority and making a false police report. Both investigations alleged that Laird used excessive force against the suspect, including pushing him to the ground and then kicking or stomping on him repeatedly.
A key piece of evidence in both of these investigations was the video recorded by the dash camera in another officer’s vehicle. This video apparently recorded the whole interaction between Sergeant Laird and the juvenile suspect. Experts hired by both the prosecution and Laird’s defense attorney determined Laird’s use of force was justified under the circumstances. The prosecution dropped the charges and the Department halted its termination of Laird.
However, a local newspaper reporter then filed requests for the video footage. The reporter claimed the video was a public record. A trial judge in Humboldt County agreed and ordered the City of Eureka to release the video. The City appealed the judge’s order, arguing the video was part of Laird’s confidential personnel file and could only be released through the procedures required by the Pitchess statutes.
The Court of Appeal rejected the City’s argument and affirmed the order to release the video. The Court ruled that because the video was recorded before any investigation had begun, it was an independent record and was not part of Laird’s personnel file. Because the video was merely considered during the investigation and was not generated by it, the video was not a record related to “employee advancement, appraisal, or discipline.”
The Court relied on the major decision by the California Supreme Court two years ago in Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach (2014). In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that Long Beach could not withhold the identity of a police officer who had been involved in a shooting, but must disclose it to requesting newspapers. Here, the Court of Appeal ruled that dash camera footage is similar to an officer’s identity and must be released to the public.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is a serious setback to the privacy interests of peace officers across the state. Under the ruling, potentially all dash camera and body camera footage could be subject to public release.