The Mazza Law Group, P.C.
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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.

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.