No blanket exemptions for police dash cams, state court rules

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OLYMPIA — Police dashboard cameras can’t be withheld from public disclosure unless they relate to pending litigation, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Five of the high court’s members said the Seattle Police Department wrongly used a state statute as a blanket exemption to the state’s public-records act when it denied providing dash-cam videos to a reporter with KOMO-TV. The ruling overturns a 2012 King County Superior Court judge’s ruling that said the video could be withheld for three years.

On its blog, SPD Blotter, the Seattle Police Department said, “The City Attorney’s Office and SPD are now working to ensure the department meets the expectations set by the court.”

The statute at issue exempts from disclosures some recordings made by police. Four of the justices agreed that the statute was an exception to the state’s public-records act. But they noted that exemptions must be narrowly interpreted and do not “create a blanket exemption for any video that might be the subject of litigation.”

“Neither the statutory text nor the legislative history suggests that categorical delay was legislative purpose,” wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez, joined by Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Justice Pro Tem James Johnson.

McCloud wrote a separate concurrence opinion saying that she agreed with the majority’s resolution but disagreed with their finding that the statute can still exempt such recordings from disclosure, noting that such videos in the midst of active litigation are played in open court, thus public.

The court awarded KOMO attorney fees and sent the case back to the lower court.

“The department will now begin assessing the technical and staffing needs associated with an anticipated increase in the number of requests for in-car video. SPD and the city will examine new technologies to assist in implementing this expansion in the handling of public records,” the police department wrote on its blog.”

All nine justices found that the police department did not violate the state’s public-records act when it said it had no responsive records to KOMO reporter Tracy Vedder’s request for police officer log sheets.

The entire court was also in agreement in saying that the department violated the law when it told Vedder it didn’t have response records for a list of all digital in-car video and audio recordings.

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.

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