OAKLAND – An Alameda County judge ruled earlier this month that the Public Records Act applies to video taken by cameras worn by on-duty police officers, a victory for the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU of Northern California.
The city of Hayward charged the National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter $3,247 for a copy of video footage from a Black Lives Matter protest in December 2014 taken by a body camera on a city police officer. The lawyers guild wanted to footage to explore claims that officers used excessive force in trying to disperse protesters.
The ACLU sued the city on the guild’s behalf in 2015 on the grounds that the charges were excessive. The police department reported that its staff spent about 170 hours compiling and redacting exempt information the footage.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled July 5 that the police department reimburse the lawyers guild for all costs except $1, the cost of the DVD containing the footage, saying that government agencies can only charge PRA requestors for direct costs associated with accommodating their requests.
“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,” Grillo wrote in his ruling. “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.”
Alan Schlosser, senior counsel with the ACLU of Northern California, told the Northern California Record that the case sparked the group’s interest because of its broader implications for the Public Records Act and the rights of citizens and journalists to government information.
“This is the first case to interpret electronic records saying that the government only has to be responsible for direct copying costs as related to public records requests," Schlosser said. “It is also the first case to deal with body cameras broadly.”
Though the $3,200 charge in this case would not have necessarily been a financial hardship for the guild to pay, Schlosser said the broader impact on public records requests is crucial.
“Cities are debating how much they will release the footage, and how much they will charge to do so,” Schlosser said. “This ruling makes it possible for individuals and groups without large financial means to request digital records without incurring prohibitive costs.”
Michael Lawson, attorney for city of Hayward, told the Northern California Record that his office is reviewing the ruling and deciding on its next steps in the case. He has not determined whether or not the city will file an appeal.
“We have 30 days to respond to the ruling, and we expect to do so within that time frame,” Lawson said.
Schlosser said he is expecting the city to file an appeal, and the ACLU is ready to fight back when it comes their way.
“They will likely be trying to get other cities to support their view, and we will be talking to other entities on our side to get their support,” Schlosser said.