Protecting the rights of both the police and the accusedAs of June 20, 2017, motor vehicle recordings (“MVRs”), commonly known as “dash cams”, recorded by state trooper patrol vehicles when lights or sirens are activated are not protected from public disclosure under the “criminal investigative records” exception to the Right-to-Know-Law (“RTKL”).
The 2008 RTKL enables individuals to request public records from governmental agencies. When a request is made, Commonwealth agencies must provide copies of all public records. If a request is denied by the agency, an appeal may be made to the Office of Open Records (“OOR”).
Michelle Grove (“Grove”) requested a “copy of the police report and any video/audio recordings” taken by two troopers when they arrived at the location of a multi-car collision in Centre County, Pennsylvania on March 24, 2014.. In response to Grove’s request, officials from the Pennsylvania State Police provided a Public Information Release report offering vague information regarding the citations drivers involved had received. An additional letter sent to Grove denying her other requests stated that MVRs were categorized as “criminal investigative records”, and as such, were “exempt” from public release.
Notably, the MVRs did not include footage from the actual accident, but instead included footage of a trooper speaking to persons involved in the accident and bystanders, examination of the vehicles and related damage , officers directing the relocation of vehicles involved and officers explaining the situation to one and other. Consequently, Grove appealed to the OOR and offered multiple documents and statements in support of her request. In their final decision, OOR instructed the PSP that they must provide the two relevant MVRS to Grove. The PSP then appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth court held that MVRs are not exempt as a criminal investigative record and and affirmed the OOR’s decision in part, requiring the PSP to release the MVRs to Grove, but remanding in part back to the OOR to redact certain portions prior to the record’s release.
The Pennsylvania State Police appealed the ruling , and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted review. In their decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the MVRs were not “criminal investigative records”, nor did they constitute “investigative information”. Accordingly, the MVRs were not subject to exemption from the RTKL and were to be disclosed to the public per their request unless a different reason for exemption existed. Further, MVRs were not excluded from public disclosure under the Criminal History Record Information Act in the present circumstance. Lastly, the Court stated that in the present case the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act did not hinder or limit disclosure of the audio portion of the MVR because the individuals engaged in conversation in broad daylight at the busy scene of the accident and , as such, had no reasonable expectation of privacy.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case does not mean that all dash cam videos are always discoverable, it is the first step in broadening the umbrella of public information available under the RTKL by allowing for a case-by-case analysis of the records content to evaluate if it is exempted from public release. In the modern era, Dash cam footage has proven to be incredibly valuable in protecting the rights of both the police and the accused.