COLUMBUS, Ohio – Video footage from police cruiser dashcams is a public record that, with some exceptions, should be promptly released upon request, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s unanimous decision came in a case involving a State Highway Patrol chase last year on Interstate 71.
The state denied a request by The Cincinnati Enquirer for video of the Jan. 22, 2015, pursuit, saying the footage was a “confidential law enforcement investigatory record” and exempt from public records law. The video shows the troopers’ real-time investigative activities, the state argued.
The Supreme Court rejected the state’s arguments, though the court said some material could be shielded on a case-by-case basis if it was deemed part of a criminal investigation.
“The dash-cam recordings fit within the definition of a `record’ because they document governmental activities, decisions, and operations during a traffic stop and pursuit,” Justice Judi French wrote in the court’s opinion.
French said about 90 seconds of the video – when the suspect was taken to a cruiser, read his rights and questioned – could have been withheld as part of the investigation.
“In the end, we hold that decisions about whether an exception to public-records disclosure applies to dash-cam recordings require a case-by-case review to determine whether the requested recordings contain investigative work product,” French wrote.
That finding is important because it prohibits police departments from denying requests wholesale, said Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati public records attorney who represented the Enquirer.
“It’s a significant victory for the media and the public, because it does make it clear to the Ohio highway patrol that you can’t put a blanket over the entirety of any records, including footage,” Greiner said Tuesday.
The patrol said it was reviewing the decision.
The Supreme Court denied the newspaper’s request for attorneys’ fees, saying the state acted reasonably in withholding the video until the criminal case ended.
That brought a rebuke from Justice William O’Neill, who said the fees should have been granted.
It is “wrong for this court to recognize the clear public interest in police dash-cam recordings and then to deny the Enquirer reasonable attorney fees after it shed light on this ongoing dispute between the state’s need for privacy and the public’s right to know what is going on,” O’Neill wrote.
Still pending before the court is a related argument over police body camera footage.
In that case, The Associated Press and other media organizations sued Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters when he initially refused to release police body-camera video involving the July 2015 fatal shooting of a black motorist in a traffic stop by a white University of Cincinnati police officer.
Deters asked the court to throw out the lawsuit over the footage, saying the issue was moot after he released the video. But Deters also said he wouldn’t object if the justices looked at the overall issue of releasing such video in the midst of investigations.
A judge scheduled a hearing next week to discuss plans for the retrial of the officer after a mistrial was declared last month because of a hung jury.
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