A hallmark of a free society is government transparency and access to law enforcement records. Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California prevailed in obtaining a unanimous California Supreme Court opinion that will help ensure that access to electronic records, such as police body camera footage, is not dependent on the requester’s wealth.
In 2014, Hayward police officers initiated “crowd control” during demonstrations protesting grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both unarmed black men. Several demonstrators were injured. Early in 2015, the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco Bay Area Chapter submitted a public records request to the Hayward Police Department, seeking records relating to this event. Hayward charged the Guild $3,248.47 for its labor costs in redacting confidential portions of police videos, although it provided some records at no charge. The Guild paid under protest.
On Sep. 15, 2015, the ACLU and the Law Offices of Amitai Schwartz filed a lawsuit against the City of Hayward and its Police Department for charging the Guild excessive fees as the price for disclosing body camera footage the Guild requested under the California Public Records Act. The ACLU won in the trial court, but the decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal. We then sought review in the California Supreme Court.
The issue before the California Supreme Court was whether Hayward’s redaction of the videos constituted an “extraction,” which would have permitted the agency to recoup its labor costs from the requester—even though the cost of redaction cannot be imposed for copies of paper records. If Hayward’s interpretation had carried the day, the cost of obtaining these electronic records would have been far out of reach for ordinary members of the public.
“What was at stake here is the public’s right to know what its government is doing, including what its police are doing on the streets. The Public Records Act is designed to provide access to these records. Since almost all records are now kept in electronic form, permitting government to charge for redactions would have gutted the intent of the Public Records Act and closed off many electronic records to public scrutiny,” said Amitai Schwartz, the attorney who brought the case and argued it in the California Supreme Court.
Today, the California Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU and unequivocally stated that the term “data extraction” does not cover the process of redacting exempt material from otherwise disclosable electronic records. In other words, the government agency must pay for its own electronic redaction costs.
“Today the California Supreme Court validated why we brought this lawsuit: We do not live in a state where access to electronic public records, such as police body camera footage, depends on your income. Everyone, rich or poor, deserves access to these records,” observed ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Kathleen Guneratne.
This decision will help many members of the public, including family members whose loved ones were killed by police, the media, advocacy groups and government reform organizations, obtain access to critical electronic public records, such as police body camera footage. This body camera footage has never been more critical.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is an important victory for government transparency in California," said Rachel Lederman, the civil rights attorney who requested the videos on behalf of the Guild. "Body cameras can't fully serve their function of promoting police accountability if it is prohibitively expensive for the public to get access to the videos.”