OLYMPIA – Video recordings from police dashboard cameras cannot be withheld from public disclosure unless the images relate to pending litigation, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Five high court members said the Seattle Police Department wrongly used a state statute as a blanket exemption to the Washington state public records act when it denied providing dashboard videos to a reporter from KOMO-TV.
Justice Steven Gonzalez was joined in the ruling by Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Justice Pro Tem James Johnson.
The ruling overturned a portion of a 2012 decision by a King County Superior Court judge that the department could withhold the videos for three years.
The statute cited by police exempts from disclosures some recordings made by police. Four of the justices agreed the statute was an exception to the 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.”
McCloud wrote a separate concurrent opinion in which she stated that she agreed with the majority’s resolution of the KOMO case but disagreed with its finding that the statute can still exempt such recordings from disclosure. She noted that such videos involved in active litigation are played in open court and thus made public.
The majority awarded KOMO attorney fees and sent the case back to the lower court.
Four other justices argued that the statute was clear that the recordings should not be released to the public until criminal or civil litigation was completed.
“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 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.