City Must Refund Excessive Fees Charged for Body Camera Footage
OAKLAND, Calif. - In a first-of-its-kind decision and a victory for police accountability and transparency, an Alameda County judge has ruled that a public agency can't charge excessive fees for police body worn camera footage.
The ACLU of Northern California and the Law Offices of Amitai Schwartz sued the city of Hayward and its police department for unlawful and excessive costs on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter (NLGSF) after the NLGSF was charged more than $3247 for a Public Records Act (PRA) request for body camera footage of a Black Lives Matter protest in 2014. It is the first case to address the statutory exception for electronic records.
"The Public Records Act was designed to give the public access to these important records and when excessive fees make it impossible for people to obtain the records, those ideals are compromised," said Schwartz.
Under the PRA, government agencies are limited to charging only for the direct cost of duplicating records. For electronic records, the law allows additional charges for producing records that require data compilation, extraction, or programming. Though Hayward argued that the additional charges were necessary, the judge ruled that the city couldn't charge for time spent editing the videos to redact information it claims to be exempt from disclosure .
"The CPRA and the related provisions in the California Constitution demonstrate a strong policy that the public should have prompt and low cost access to public records," Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evilio Grillo wrote in his ruling. A public agency may charge for the direct costs of duplication of public records without regard to whether they are maintained in paper or electronic format but "direct cost does not include the ancillary tasks necessarily associated with the retrieval, inspection and handling of the file from which the copy is extracted."
The public interest served by the disclosure outweighs the financial burden of the city to produce the footage, Grillo ruled.
Body cameras have emerged as a widely supported tool to address racially-biased policing and police violence. The idea is that the video will help hold officers accountable for misconduct that would be harder to prove using witness accounts alone. An important part of that is allowing open and affordable access for the public and the press.
"The widespread adoption of body cameras by police departments around the country is an important part of post-Ferguson reforms intended to increase transparency and accountability,"said Alan Schlosser, senior counsel with the ACLU of Northern California. "Exorbitant fees under the PRA would undermine those goals and make public access to the best record of what happened when police misconduct is suspected out of reach."
"Hayward's body camera videos showed police officers shooting so-called 'less lethal' munitions at peaceful protesters while making remarks such as, 'They are fucking animals;' 'I got it up right now ready to go motherfuckers;' and 'Get a shot in his fucking ass,'" noted NLGSF board member Rachel Lederman. "If we had not been able to come up with the funding to obtain the nine clips that Hayward charged over $3,000 for, this wanton police violence would never have come to light."
The court ordered the city of Hayward to refund to the NLGSF the entire $3247 cost, except for the $1 charge for the DVD that contained the information.
The NLGSF is suing the City of Berkeley for civil rights violations against Black Lives Matter protesters. The Hayward Police body camera videos were taken while Hayward officers were providing mutual aid to Berkeley during the December 6, 2014, demonstration. The NLGSF, established in 1937, is a human rights bar association with a long history of defending activists and fighting for police accountability.