PA Law Seeks to Limit Access to Police Body Cam Videos | Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys

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PA Law Seeks to Limit Access to Police Body Cam Videos

Police body cameras have become more common across the U.S. in an effort to increase transparency between the police and citizens. By requiring police body cam videos, the public hopes to reduce unnecessary violence and deaths. Some Philadelphia and Pittsburgh police departments wear body cameras; however, the technology is rare in other Pennsylvania departments and body cameras are not worn by the state police. The reason behind the slow adoption of this technology is that there are legal and technical issues of using cameras based on the state’s wiretapping and electronic surveillance law as well as the Right to Know Law.

To remedy this, a new bill has passed the Pennsylvania Senate and is now in the House, which aims to clear up many of these issues, enabling more body cameras. However, Senate Bill 976 would also make obtaining camera recordings much more difficult than is currently required under the Right to Know Law.

As technology advances and more police situations are recorded, such as traffic stops and interrogations, it is even more important to understand your rights in regard to being recorded or accessing footage of your interactions with the police. If you were stopped by the police, questioned in your home or interrogated at a police station, there may be a recording and you may have the right to see it. For information as to how, contact a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney with Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC at (412) 281-2146.

Current Access to Police Body Cam Videos

According to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act, the public is guaranteed access to state and local public records. As of Jan. 1, 2009, government records are presumed to be public unless the relevant government agency can prove otherwise. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Pa. State Police v. Grove found police body cam footage was public record. Under the Act, individuals can currently file requests with the appropriate law enforcement agency’s open records officer to obtain police body cam footage.

One exception to the Right to Know Act is police investigation materials. These remain private.
Pa. State Police v. Grove is before the state Supreme Court right now to determine whether police body camera videos remain accessible public records or become private investigational materials. However, if Bill 976 passes the House and is signed into law, this right and the process to access these videos will change significantly no matter the Supreme Court’s decision.

Potential Restrictions Under Bill 976

One of the major functions of Bill 976 is to create a more restrictive process for obtaining police body cam footage. Under the new law, there would be an entirely separate method to these retrieve videos from law enforcement agencies. Individuals would have to:

  • Make a request within 14 days of the recording being made
  • Identify every person that appears in the video without seeing it first
  • Pay costs determined by the police organization

However, if the police agency determined the footage is part of an investigation, the agency may deny access. An individual can choose to appeal a denial in the Court of Common Pleas. This will cost at least $250. While the Office of Open Records usually hears appeals regarding denials of Right to Know requests, the OOR would have no jurisdiction to decide on whether police body cam videos could be released.

Where is the Bill Now?

Senate Bill 976 was originally sponsored in August 2015 and passed the Pennsylvania Senate with a 45-5 vote on Oct. 19, 2016. The bill moved to the House and was referred to the Judiciary committee as of Oct. 20. It may take months for the bill to be reviewed by the committee and considered on the House floor. While many people believe the bill will pass, it is unknown whether Gov. Tom Wolf will sign it into law.

A Pittsburgh Criminal Lawyer Can Help

Our world is becoming more entwined with technology each day. If you were stopped by the police, it is likely the encounter was captured on a police vehicle’s dash cam. If you were questioned by the police in a station, this may have been recorded. Right now, some police video footage remains public record while other footage is private as part of an investigation. If you want access to video that relates to your arrest or criminal case, you should speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC. We can discuss your rights to police footage as a citizen and defendant and help you obtain footage to support your defense in court.

Contact us today at (412) 281-2146 to schedule a consultation.