- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A Pennsylvania court ruled Tuesday that police videos recorded in public places are subject to public disclosure, although they may contain investigative portions that can be redacted.

A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel said mobile vehicle recorders show how police carry out their duties, which they said was “at the core” of the Right-to-Know Law’s goal of helping people scrutinize public officials and hold them accountable.

Mobile vehicle recorders, they wrote, “are created to document troopers’ performance of their duties in responding to emergencies and in their interactions with members of the public, not merely or primarily to document, assemble or report on evidence of a crime or possible crime.”

The case involves Spring Mills resident Michelle Grove’s request for two recordings made by state troopers at the scene of a friend’s motor vehicle accident near State College in March 2014.

Grove said Tuesday she went to the accident scene after her friend called, and arrived just as police were getting there.

Her own observations and the written police report, Grove said, gave her doubts about the fairness and accuracy of the investigation.

“These videos are created for the public, for the specific reason of providing accountability,” Grove said.

The judges ordered the release of one, which contains only video. The other, which captured audio of troopers interviewing the drivers and bystanders, can be redacted to withhold interviews with people at the scene.

The second video also raised privacy issues related to the Wiretap Act, and the judges allowed the agency to also redact any “utterances of private citizens who had no notice of the recording.”

Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association lawyer Melissa Melewsky described it as an encouraging decision.

“Pennsylvanians have struggled for access to police records under the current law, so any time we see the courts coming down in favor of access, it’s a positive step,” she said.

State police spokeswoman Maria Finn declined comment about the ruling and said a decision on whether to appeal has not been made.

The state police had argued the full tapes, made at the scene of an accident that resulted in summary criminal citations, were covered by the criminal investigation exception in the Right-to-Know Law.

“We do not agree that these facts make the recordings investigative or exempt them as records ‘relating to or resulting in a criminal investigation,’” wrote Judge James Gardner Colins. “The mere fact that a record has some connection to a criminal proceeding does not automatically exempt it.”

Melewsky said the case may also apply to other police recordings, such as those made by body cameras.

In May, a county judge in Harrisburg ruled that prosecutors could not release a video shot by a camera on a stun gun that shows a Hummelstown police officer shooting to death a man after an attempted traffic stop and chase earlier this year.

Dauphin County Judge Deborah Curcillo ruled that releasing the video would jeopardize the right to a fair trial for the officer, Lisa Mearkle.

Melewsky said the new decision wasn’t clear about how much police can now redact from a video of a police encounter that later turns into an investigation.

“I think there’s leeway for the police to argue that, but I don’t think it’s automatic,” she said.

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