(UPDATED) In a significant First Amendment victory, a police dashboard camera video is not a “personnel record” and thus cannot be withheld from the public, a state appeals court held Tuesday, in a win for a Eureka journalist investigating the police arrest tactics used on a juvenile.
California’s First District Court of Appeal said Tuesday that Eureka must turn over to the North Coast Journal reporter Thadeus Greenson a 2012 videotape of a Eureka police sergeant who was accused of excessive force during an arrest.
The appeals court decision was not a total victory for access. The panel expressed no opinion on whether the dashcam videos are subject to California’s Public Records Act, only that they may not be withheld as confidential personnel material in police discipline cases.
The police and the city had withheld the video arguing it was a personnel record and that it would invade the privacy of the juvenile, although the teen waived his privacy right and supported release of the video.
In December 2012, the teen, identified only as H.M. was chased by Sgt. Adam Laird and pushed to the ground, where H.M. gave up and remained on the ground, the court said. A second officer arrived with the in-car mobile video system recording the arrest.
A citizen filed a complaint against Laird for his treatment of H.M. An internal affairs investigation resulted in charges of misdemeanor assault by a police officer without necessity and making a false report. After reviewing evidence, including the video, the prosecution ultimately dismissed the charges in 2014.
Greenson, who wrote about the arrest, sought access to the arrest video under California’s Public Records Act but was denied based on the city claim of an exemption for personnel records.
He next sought disclosure through an exception in the juvenile records law and was again rejected. Greenson argued, “the public has a right to know exactly what happened” during the minor’s arrest “to evaluate the performance of both its police officers and prosecutors.”
Greenson pursued the claim in court and during a 2015 court hearing the judge reviewed the unedited version of the video and ruled it was not a confidential police personnel record.
The arrest was “both the subject of a delinquency investigation and potentially actions which could result in confidential internal personnel proceedings,” the judge held.
The city appealed seeking to vacate the May 2015 court order before the video was released.
The appeals court, which also saw the video, agreed the city “has not demonstrated the arrest video is a ‘personnel record,’” and ordered its release.
The fact that an officer might face an internal affairs investigation at some unspecified point in the future “does not transmute arrest videos into disciplinary documentation or confidential personnel information,” the court said.
Case: City of Eureka v. Superior Ct. of Humboldt (Greenson), No. A145701
Corrected: Name of Greenson’s publication.