Ohio’s high court considering media access to police videos

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Video footage from police body cameras and cruiser dash cams are public records that should be released promptly, an attorney for several news organizations, including The Associated Press, argued before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The arguments over media requests in two cases — dash-cam video of a high-speed chase and police body-camera video in the fatal shooting of a black motorist — were the first substantive claims about such recordings to reach the state’s highest court.

Both cases raised similar arguments and seek a resolution on how the record requests should be treated going forward.

The Cincinnati Enquirer asked the State Highway Patrol for video of the Jan. 22, 2015, chase on Interstate 71. But the state said the footage was a “confidential law enforcement investigatory record” and, thus, an exception under public records law. The video documents the troopers’ real-time investigative activities, the state argued.

Jeffery Clark, an assistant state attorney general, said officials could keep the video from being released until all legal proceedings are over.

But The Enquirer said the video shows the incident in progress, as anyone nearby could have seen it unfold on the interstate, and it wasn’t made during an investigation.

Justice Paul Pfeifer questioned that claim, saying multiple criminal acts were occurring when the trooper activated the cruiser’s lights, triggering the dash camera to begin recording. He said viewers of the video would be looking at a crime from the start.

“It’s evidence of the crime, is it not?” Pfeifer asked The Enquirer’s attorney, Jack Greiner.

“The law says investigation,” Greiner replied. “The law doesn’t say evidence of the crime. The law says it has to be an investigation.”

Justice William O’Neill said even if he was going to agree with the newspaper, the question seemed like something lawmakers, who have defined the meaning of a confidential law enforcement investigatory record, should address.

In a separate case, The Associated Press and other media organizations sued Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters when he initially refused to release police body-camera video involving the July 19 fatal shooting of a black motorist in a traffic stop by a white University of Cincinnati police officer.

Deters asked the court to throw out the lawsuit over the footage, saying the issue was moot after he released the video. But Deters also said he wouldn’t object if the justices looked at the overall issue of releasing such video in the midst of investigations.

Pfeifer indicated he thought the case should have been tossed.

“This case is, of course, just as moot as the last one,” he told Greiner, who also represented the media organizations in the dash-cam case.

Among other arguments, the news organizations claim that because a state-supported university created the video to document its officer’s activities, the video is a public record. The video also was kept by the Cincinnati police and county prosecutor’s office.

The footage is “a more accurate version of the incident report” that helps initiate an investigation but isn’t part of one, Greiner added.

The prosecutor argues the court has held that public record requests must be considered “in the context of the circumstances surrounding it.” Deters says he made the decision to delay the video’s release because of concerns for public safety and the possibility of tainting the grand jury process.

When the body camera is turned on, it becomes an investigatory tool, and its recordings should be exempted from public records law, Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who represented Deters, told the court.

“The investigation started when that officer activated his camera,” Douglas said.

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