The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Tuesday, December 6 that Ohio law enforcement dash-cam recordings are public records that cannot be completely withheld – however, segments that are considered “investigatory work product” may be redacted.
This decision came in response to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s 2015 request for over an hour’s worth of dash-cam footage of a police chase and eventual crash back in January of 2015. The video from the three cameras was not released until May of that year, two months after the driver of the pursued vehicle was convicted of fleeing from law enforcement, along with other crimes. Following review of the footage, the Court determined that only 90 seconds worth of video from one of the three cameras could be considered investigatory work product under state law.
The 90 seconds of footage in question was Officer Laura Harvey’s interview with the suspect conducted away from the public’s view, in her squad car, and after informing him of his Miranda rights with the intent of securing admissible statements to use in his prosecution.
Writing for the majority, Justice Judith L. French noted that the Court declined to rule that law enforcement could withhold all dash-cam footage until a subject is prosecuted, or that entire recordings are considered public records and should be released promptly. Instead, each one should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in order to determine just how much of it can be disclosed. She concluded:
“In the end, we hold that decisions about whether an exception to public-records disclosure applies to dash-cam recordings require a case-by-case review to determine whether the requested recordings contain investigative work product.”
The patrol previously cited the exemption in Ohio Public Records Act, 149.43(A)(2) that allowed “confidential law enforcement investigatory records” to be withheld – however, Justice French used this same Act to explain that government bodies are required to promptly prepare and make available for inspection all public records requested. She wrote that in the 1994 State ex rel. Steckman v. Jackson decision, the Court recognized that not all potential evidence of criminal activity was shielded from disclosure, though the 2001 case of State ex rel. Beacon Journal Publishing Co. v. Maurer found that certain items could be redacted in order to protect certain pieces of information, and concluded that these rulings applied to dash-cam footage.
The Court did not award the Enquirer court costs, damages and attorney fees, noting that the patrol acted in good faith based on a court of appeals opinion from 2014 that found that dash-cam footage was not considered pubic record. However, Justice William M. O’Neill wrote that he was in favor of awarding the newspaper attorney fees.
“Whether police dash-cam recordings are public records is a major public-policy question in Ohio. It is wrong for this court to recognize the clear public interest in police dash-cam recordings and then to deny the Enquirer reasonable attorney fees after it shed light on this ongoing dispute between the state’s need for privacy and the public’s right to know what is going on,” he wrote. “The Enquirer could have saved attorney fees by abandoning this action as soon as the records were produced but it did not, and the law of Ohio is more easily understood as a result of their tenacity.”