(CN) — The California Supreme Court came down on the side of government transparency in a closely watched case with implications for how parties can obtain requested electronic records like body cameras worn by police.
The court unanimously sided with the National Lawyers Guild in a lawsuit against the city of Hayward, finding the city did not have the right to charge the guild for the time it spent editing body camera footage the guild requested in relation to a protest in the city of Berkeley over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
“The National Lawyer’s Guild’s interpretation is more than supportable; it is the interpretation that more readily comports with the statutory text,” wrote Justice Leondra Kruger on behalf of the majority.
Hayward argued it could charge the guild for costs related to editing hundreds of hours of police body camera footage because the California Public Records Act, which covers document production in the state, stipulates it can pass along costs associated with extracting the specific video footage.
But advocates for government transparency fretted governments could create a high-cost barrier to accessing public documents if they were allowed to charge for the time their employees spent compiling and editing requested video or other electronic documents.
“The risk here is that the public would be stuck with bills for thousands of dollars for videos that are clearly public records,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
The court noted that the Legislature updated the Public Records Act in 2000 to make the production of electronic records a more affordable option than paper records — public agencies can and do charge a per-page fee for public record production.
“Given that section 6253.9 was enacted in large part to provide a less expensive alternative to paper production, an interpretation that would allow agencies routinely to charge requesters more for the electronic version seems unlikely,” Kruger wrote.
The case stems from a protest in Berkeley in December 2014, when the entire nation was riven by police killings of young unarmed black men like Brown outside of St. Louis and Garner in New York.
During the protest, police officers from nearby Hayward were called in to assist with crowd control.
After the protests were over, the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the lawyers guild filed a records request with Hayward seeking relevant communications between police officers and the command center, along with documents that showed certain commanding officers approving of certain tactics used by police during the protest.
The Hayward Police Department has a person in charge of responding to records requests, Adam Perez, who immediately began combing documents to determine which were relevant to the request.
Along with the aforementioned documents, Perez located hours of footage from police body cameras that were likely relevant to the request. The footage is uploaded to a database called Evidence.com.
Perez spent numerous hours downloading relevant material from the database, but then needed to edit protected information identified by the state public records law, including personal medical information of individual police officers and tactical security measures police use to protect themselves.
Perez used a widely available video editing tool to make the necessary edits and then alerted the lawyers guild the videos were available for pick up, but the guild needed to pay about $3,000 in costs associated with editing the videos.
The guild said the city couldn’t make them pay for the redaction of documents, electronic or otherwise. The city argued Perez had extracted the documents rather than redacted.
The guild sued the city and a superior court judge held that the guild was correct.
However, a state appellate court reversed and sided with Hayward — prompting the Supreme Court to take up the matter.
At the high court, Hayward argued public agencies would only charge for extraction if a special effort is required to redact the document, but the justices remained unmoved.
“As a practical matter, reading section 6253.9(b)(2) to cover the costs of redacting electronic records would create peculiar distinctions between paper records and electronic ones,” Kruger wrote. “It would mean, for example, that an agency could charge for the time spent redacting an electronic version of a document even though it could not charge for time spent redacting a hard copy of the very same document.”
Snyder said the decision is a victory for public access, accountability and government transparency.
“California law makes it clear that public agencies have to bear the costs of redacting public records,” he said. “The fact that technology is involved here doesn’t change that.”