Saturday, November 7, 2015

Eureka Files Opening Brief in Dash Cam Case

Posted By on Sat, Nov 7, 2015 at 3:18 PM

click to enlarge The dash camera in a Eureka Police Department patrol car. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • The dash camera in a Eureka Police Department patrol car.
The city of Eureka recently filed the opening brief in its appeal of a Humboldt County Superior Court judge’s ruling that the release of a police dash camera video documenting the controversial arrest of a juvenile suspect is in the public interest.

In its filing, the city argues that the video depicting the Dec. 6, 2012 arrest of a juvenile suspect should be considered a “confidential police officer personnel record” because one of the arresting officers — Sgt. Adam Laird — was accused of using excessive force, an allegation that ultimately led to criminal charges and an internal affairs investigation.

The misdemeanor case against Laird was ultimately dropped by prosecutors, who felt they could not prove the charges of assault under the color of authority and falsifying a police report beyond a reasonable doubt. Laird, who argued in his defense that he'd been targeted for his political views and unfairly singled out for prosecution in the case, retired from EPD in July 2014 following the settlement of a claim he brought against he city stemming from its handling of the case.

In November of 2014, the Journal petitioned a juvenile court to release the video, arguing that the “public has a right to know exactly what happened during (the juvenile’s) arrest in order to evaluate the performance of both its police officers and prosecutors.”

In May, Judge Christopher Wilson granted the petition and ordered the video released, noting that neither the juvenile nor his father objected to the video’s being made public and finding that release would be in the public interest. The city immediately appealed to a higher court, first unsuccessfully petitioning the appellate court for extraordinary relief and then pursuing a simple appeal.

In the opening brief filed last week, the city argues that the process of petitioning a juvenile court to release records cannot be used to circumvent procedures governing the release of confidential police officer personnel records, which are given a host of special protections under California law. Further, the city argues that the video in question should fall under the definition of personnel records outlined in Penal Code section 832.8, which states they include “complaints, or investigation of complaints, concerning an event or transaction in which [a named officer] participated, or which he or she perceived, and pertaining to the manner in which he or she performed his or her duties.” Because a citizen complaint was filed against Sgt. Laird following the juvenile’s arrest, the video becomes a confidential part of his personnel record, the city argues.

“The Legislature has left the definition of personnel records broad, and the video recording at issue would fall in this broad definition,” City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson wrote in the city’s brief.

The Journal intends to file a response in the coming weeks.

In past filings with the appellate court, the Journal argued that the video does not fall under the definition of a confidential police officer personnel record and that allowing the city to deem it such would lead to “arbitrary and anomalous” results as to when such videos are made public.

“The dash cam video in this case existed independently prior to any complaint being lodged against Sgt. Laird, and independently of any internal investigation,” the Journal wrote. “Further, the record in question is a dash cam video recorded on public equipment, of public employees acting in the public interest in a public space where they had no reasonable expectation of privacy. In short, the dash cam video depicts what anyone would have seen had they been standing on Eureka’s California Street shortly before midnight on Dec. 6, 2012, the time of (the juvenile’s) arrest.”

Deeming the video a confidential part of Laird’s personnel file would also constitute an abuse of the Legislature’s intent in crafting the protection of officers records to shield them from “unwarranted invasions of personal privacy,” the Journal argued.

Those so interested can track the appellate case as it progresses through the system here, and read “Exempt from Disclosure,” the Journal’s Aug. 6 cover story on the topic here.

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reporter personally filed the petition seeking disclosure of the dash cam video in this case and authored the ensuing court filings on behalf of the Journal.

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