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“Confidential Law Enforcement Investigatory Records” No Longer a Valid Exception to Public Records Requests for Police Dash-Cam Videos

On December 6, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court held that police dash-cam video footage is a public record.  The “confidential law enforcement investigatory records” is not a valid blanket exception for dash-cam videos.

State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Ohio Dept. of Pub. Safety, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-7987, involved a 2015 high speed pursuit.  Following the pursuit and arrest of the suspect, The Cincinnati Enquirer made a public records request for footage from the chasing police cruisers’ dash-mounted cameras (“dash-cams”).  The State of Ohio denied the request, arguing that all of the footage was exempt from release under public record law because it was a “confidential law enforcement investigatory record” pursuant to R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(h) and 149.43(A)(2).

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the State’s arguments, holding that while some of the footage could be shielded as a confidential law enforcement investigatory record, the State may not assert that privilege over all dash-cam footage.  To that end, the Court held that dash-cam footage is not a confidential law-enforcement investigatory record unless the release of the footage would create a high probability of disclosure of “specific investigatory work product.”

A decision about what constitutes “specific investigatory work product” requires a case-by-case review.  However, it generally includes any notes, working papers, memoranda or similar materials, prepared by law enforcement officials in anticipation of actually pending or highly probable criminal prosecution.  In this case, the protected video only included the police officer reading the suspect his Miranda rights and subsequent questioning (a total of about 90 seconds) because the officer did so with the intention of securing admissible statements for the prosecution’s later use at trial.  The remainder of the footage, which included audio/video that was of little investigative value and/or contained information that was disclosed in incident reports that were disclosed to the Enquirer, was required to be disclosed.

Ultimately, the Court’s decision is an important ruling for police departments because it prohibits police departments from making blanket denials of dash-cam footage requests.  Whenever a request is made for footage, counsel should be contacted immediately to help determine what portions are exempt from disclosure and what portions must be disclosed. MRR has attorneys who work specifically for public entities in addressing public records requests and can assist in implementing the Supreme Court’s new decision.

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