The Mazza Law Group, P.C.
2790 W. College Ave., Suite 800
State College, PA 16801 March 10, 2016
(814) 237-6255

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decides Right-to-Know Case in Favor of Centre County Resident

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decides Right-to-Know Case in Favor of Centre County Resident allowing access to police dashcam video. On June 20, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a decision allowing public access to police “dash cam” videos, unless the police can prove that such videos include investigative material.  Centre County resident Michelle Grove, represented by attorney Helen Stolinas of the Mazza Law Group in State College, had requested “dash cam” videos depicting the State Police response to a motor vehicle accident that a friend had been involved in.

The Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) denied Grove’s request, and Grove appealed that decision to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which granted the request.  PSP thereafter appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which generally affirmed her right to obtain the records.  Finally, PSP appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

The State Police argued that such video recordings should always be deemed exempt because they relate to a criminal investigation, which creates an exemption under the Right to Know Law.  However, the court rejected this argument and held that each request must be decided on a case-by-case basis, and the burden of establishing that the video includes exempt information is on the State Police.

Attorney Helen Stolinas argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on September 14, 2016 on behalf of Ms. Grove.  Of the Court’s 5-2 ruling, she states, “We are pleased with the court’s decision that routine traffic stops and responses to automobile accidents do not per se constitute investigative or criminal records.  The opinion also affirmed our position that requiring an agency to redact electronic records does not constitute the “creation” of a record and does not exempt the video or other electronic record from being released to the public.  This is a victory for Ms. Grove, for the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the press, as it allows for greater oversight of the activities of public servants.”

If you have a question about an adverse ruling in a criminal, civil, or administrative matter, and are considering appealing, contact the experienced attorneys at the Mazza Law Group.

Drone Registration or License Required?

Is drone registration required for the drone I got for Christmas? Do I need a license to fly a drone?

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones as they are often called, are increasingly available online and on store shelves. Prospective operators—from consumers to businesses—want to fly and fly safely, but many don’t realize that, just because you can easily acquire a UAS, doesn’t mean you can fly it anywhere, or for any purpose.

Drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams)[1] but less than 55 pounds must be registered.  In order to complete drone registration you must be at least 13 years old, and a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident.[2]  Registration can be done online at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ , costs $5.00 and lasts three years.  If your drone weighs more than 55 pounds (takeoff weight with all attachments) you must use a paper registration system.  Forms are available at: http://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/aircraft_registry/

Your FAA drone registration number must be place on all drones before they are flown outside (even on your own property), and the registration may help you get your drone back if it gets lost.  Drones flown for recreational use must remain within the visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command or a visual observer, and they may be flown only in daylight, within 30 minutes of official sunrise or sunset.

So far “flying licenses” or pilot certifications are not required to fly a hobby drone.  Penalties for flying unregistered drones or using drones for commercial purposes may result in regulatory and criminal sanctions. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

If you have a question about registering your unmanned aircraft system (drone) call the experienced lawyers at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. today.

[1] Not sure how much 250 grams actually is?  Ask your friendly neighborhood cook (or drug dealer).  From the cooks: a cup of bread flour is about 150 grams, a cup of table sugar is about 200 grams.  So, the answer is not much.  If you bought a hobby drone for less than $100, it probably weighs less than .55 lbs.  Check the box or weigh it before you fly!

[2] If you are not a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident consult with one of the immigration lawyers at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. for further information about living in or visiting the United States.

Surveillance Video requested under RTKL denied

The Commonwealth Court recently ruled on a right-to-know request for a casino’s surveillance video that captured a two-vehicle collision. In Pennsylvania State Police v. Kim, the Court found that the video collected by Pennsylvania State Police was a part of a criminal investigation and protected under the Criminal History Record Information Act.

 

The Court’s decision discussed a recent case argued in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania by Helen Stolinas of The Mazza Law Group, P.C.  In Pennsylvania State Police v. Grove, the issue involved surveillance video from vehicle dash cams installed in police vehicles.  A full discussion on this issue can be found on our blog, Lawyer Argues Dashcam Case.  We are still waiting the Supreme Court’s decision in that case.

The Commonwealth Court in Kim, found the case to be distinguishable from Grove because the videos were recorded by private parties (specifically a casino) and retrieved by police as a part of an investigation.  In Grove, the surveillance video captured police non-investigative activities or daily activities which the Court found was not protected under the Criminal History Information Act.  The issues presented in both cases involved Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law which gives the public the right to request information relating to the business of public agencies. This fairly new law has been a highly contested issue because of the resources involved in complying with the request as well as the public’s interest and rights.

You or someone you know may be interested in gathering surveillance video  that is a part of a criminal investigation. Motives for reviewing the surveillance videos can vary from direct involvement in the case to the public’s right-to-know the conduct of government agencies. A lawyer at the Mazza Law Group can help decide the best approach in helping you address these complex issues.  Call us today.

State College Lawyer Argues Dashcam Case

Attorney Helen Stolinas of The Mazza Law Group, PC in State College, argued a case of statewide importance involving a police dashcam and the Right to Know Law yesterday before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Her client is Michelle Grove of Spring Mills.

The case arose when Ms. Grove filed a request for a “dashcam” video recording from the Pennsylvania State Police which documented the police response to a traffic accident which happened in Potters Mills, Pennsylvania on March 22, 2014.

Under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law the State Police denied the request, but the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records granted access, resulting in an appeal to the Commonwealth Court, which also found that the video was a public record and should be released.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to consider this case of statewide importance, and argument took place yesterday before the Supreme Court in Philadelphia.

At issue was whether the documentation of a routine response to a traffic incident is a “public record,” and therefore subject to public access under the Right to Know Law.  Attorney Stolinas made both policy and legal arguments for the release of such videos, noting in court that the challenges of recent years regarding police community relations provide a strong justification for the release of the videos.

The State Police took the position in court that such recordings would violate provisions of the Wiretap Act, but Attorney Stolinas noted that the Wiretap Act only applies to recordings made when the individual being recorded has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  Under the circumstances of the case, she argued that the individuals could not expect that their statements, made alongside a public roadway, were private or not being recorded by police.

In light of an argument made by counsel for the Pennsylvania State Police that release of video recordings would place a burden on police agencies due to the need for redaction of certain portions of the videos due to privacy concerns, Attorney Stolinas noted that technology is likely to improve, thereby reducing the burden of redaction.

As is its general practice, the Supreme Court has not indicated when a decision will be made in this matter.  News reports about the case can be found HERE, and HERE.

DRONES AND TRESPASS

Can you trespass with a drone? Can you prevent a drone from flying over your property?  Can you shoot it down if it does?  Can you sue the operator?

The British colony of Pennsylvania was given to William Penn in 1681.  Most property owners in Pennsylvania can trace their deeds back to “warrants” from William Penn.  These land grants conveyed property from the center of the earth to the heavens above.  There was not great risk of trespass from the air until Professor Langley’s Aerodromes (unmanned flights) and the Wright Brother’s manned flights in 1903.   By 1926 Congress declared the air above the “minimum safe altitude of flight” prescribed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority as a “public highway” and “part of the public domain.”[1]  The current regulations define that minimum safe altitude as 1,000 feet above congested areas and 500 feet above rural areas with a number of exceptions and qualifications (of course, it’s a government regulation).[2]

But what about the space between the ground and the minimum safe altitude flight mark? The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a case involving a chicken farmer, United States v. Causby[3]. During World War II, the army took over a municipal airport and started flying noisy aircraft over Thomas Causby’s land as low as 83 feet, causing many of his chickens to fly into the walls of their coop and die.  These flights rendered his land unfit for chicken farming.  He sued the government in the Court of Claims, asserting a “taking” of his property.  The lower court decided in his favor, requiring the government to reimburse Causby for a “taking” of his property.

The Supreme Court said: “It is ancient doctrine that at common law ownership of the land extended to the periphery of the universe — cujus est solum ejus est usque and coelum. But that doctrine has no place in the modern world. The air is a public highway, as Congress has declared. Were that not true, every transcontinental flight would subject the operator to countless trespass suits. Common sense revolts at the idea. To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim. 328 U. S. at 260-261”

Drones and Trespass – What the Court’s say:

But the Court said: “Flights of aircraft over private land which are so low and frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land are as much an appropriation of the use of the land as a more conventional entry upon it.” Causby, supra, 328 U. S. 261-262, 328 U. S. 264-267.  The Supreme Court remanded the case for a determination of Causby’s precise damages for the taking of “flight easement.”

In 1955 the Pa Supreme Court was asked if the courts had the authority to enjoin low flights said: “Where planes fly frequently over land either in interstate or intra-state commerce below minimum safe altitudes of flight and so low or in such manner as to endanger life or property, they may be enjoined by a state court as unlawful trespassers or as a nuisance, and may injure or destroy usefulness of property to such an extent as to amount to a “taking”, for which damages may be awarded.[4]

A quick check of Westlaw this morning did not reveal any reported case on drone flights as a trespass in Pennsylvania, making this a legal grey area – at least for now.  There have been a number of news reports recently about people shooting down drones over their property (an understandable but bad idea for lots of reasons) and people loosing drones that crashed into their neighbor’s property.  If you have a question about the legality of a drone, want to stop drones from snooping over your house, or need to get your lost drone back from an angry neighbor call the experienced lawyers at the Mazza Law Group, P.C.

[1]  The Air Commerce Act of 1926, as amended by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938.

[2] 14 CFR 91.119 – Minimum safe altitudes: General.

[3] United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256 (1946)

[4] Gardner v. County of Allegheny, 114 A.2d 491 (PA 1955).

Did you get a Drone for Christmas?

If I received a drone for Christmas does it need to be registered? If I have drone do I have to get a license to fly it?

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones as they are often called, are increasingly available online and on store shelves. Prospective operators—from consumers to businesses—want to fly and fly safely, but many don’t realize that, just because you can easily acquire a UAS, doesn’t mean you can fly it anywhere, or for any purpose.

Effective December 21, 2015, drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams)[1] but less than 55 pounds must be registered.  To register you must be at least 13 years old, and a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident.[2]  Registration can be done online at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ , costs $5.00 and lasts three years.  If your drone weighs more than 55 pounds (takeoff weight with all attachments) you must use a paper registration system.  Forms are available at: http://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/aircraft_registry/

Did you get a Drone for Christmas?

If a younger child received a drone for Christmas as a gift it must be registered by someone who is at least 13 years old.  Once registered your registration number must be place on all drones before they are flown outside (even on your own property).  Penalties for flying unregistered drones may result in regulatory and criminal sanctions. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.  Someone will be the first person prosecuted under these new regulations, don’t let it be you.

So far “flying licenses” or pilot certifications are not required to fly a hobby drone.  Registering your drone may help you get it back if it gets lost.  If you have a question about registering your unmanned aircraft system (drone) call the experienced lawyers at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. today.

[1] Not sure how much 250 grams actually is?  Ask your friendly neighborhood cook (or drug dealer).  From the cooks: a cup of bread flour is about 150 grams, a cup of table sugar is about 200 grams.  So, the answer is not much.  If you bought a hobby drone for less than $100, it probably weighs less than .55 lbs.  Check the box or weigh it before you fly!

[2] If you are not a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident consult with one of the immigration lawyers at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. for further information about living in or visiting the United States.

What do you have the right to know?

You probably know that you have a “right to know,” but do you actually know what you have a right to know?

Public access to court and other governmental records in Pennsylvania is governed by the so-called right to know law, 65 P.S. §§67.101 et seq., (“RTKL”).  The statute is designed to ensure that citizens, upon request, may see certain local, legislative and judicial records. The goal is to promote transparency within our government to provide citizens with information on what the government is doing.  While there are some limitations on the types of documents that must be produced, it is the general principle that the government may not secretly create laws and control our actions without making the reasoning and the financial aspects accessible.

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the right to know law because of a gray area in information that arguably should be part of transparency in government, This information could be protected by the right to know law.  Recently, the Centre County judicial system has been at the center of attention on this topic, with a considerable amount of taxpayer money being devoted to litigation on right to know disclosures.

Legal Information

If you have questions about access to judicial records or other information about the legal system, you can begin by consulting with your lawyer.  When you hire an attorney to assist you with legal issues, you have a right to know the reasons for your lawyer’s actions and your financial contributions to success.  Your attorney should not hesitate to provide you with information to help you understand the laws and factual circumstances that affect the legal advice that they give you.  You may access your legal file and, most importantly, you should be able to easily access your lawyer with an old-fashioned letter, an email or a phone call.  You have a right to know the status of your case and, most importantly, what your lawyer is doing for you.

Our lawyers at The Mazza Law Group, P.C. strive to provide you with consistent updates and information about your legal rights and obligations.  One of our goals is to remain accessible to our clients, without complicated restrictions.  Our actions and obligations are defined by the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct.  Please contact us to find out how we can help you with your legal problem.

Unwanted Sexting And “Revenge Porn” Now Clearly Illegal In Pennsylvania

Young couple If your girlfriend (or boyfriend) sends you a racy photograph of themselves can you send it on to your friends (or their enemies)?  When school starts in September a new law will make it a crime to disseminate nude or sexually explicit images of a current or former intimate partner if done with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm the person in the photo (is there any other motivation?).

If the photos are of a person under 18 the maximum penalty is 5 years in jail for each picture.  If the person in the picture is over 18 the maximum penalty is three years in jail for each picture.  The law also provides for fines of up to $10,000 for each picture of a person under 18 and $5,000 per picture when the person is older.

The law also creates a new statutory private civil cause of action that allows for the award of damages (actual damages or $500 whichever is greater) per picture.  More importantly the new law also provides for the award of reasonable attorney’s fees for the person victimized by sexting or revenge porn.   In other words, if you post or forward sexually explicit photos of your ex not only will you have to pay them, you will have to pay their lawyer when you are sued.Continue Reading