Police video exemption passes House

A bill that creates a broad, new exemption for videos collected by police body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras passed the N.C. House today 115-2. The revised bill gives discretion to police departments on withholding video from dashboard cameras and body cameras. It also makes clear the videos are not subject to personnel privacy rules. 

A revised version of House Bill 713 passed the N.C. House Thursday, and it would create a broad, new exemption for law enforcement agencies to withhold video collected by dashboard cameras and body cameras. It also clarifies that the records are not subject to personnel privacy statutes. 

The bill comes after the City of Greensboro asked for clarification from the General Assembly on the law related to body camera videos. Greensboro has classified body camera videos as personnel records under the muncipal employees privacy statute, which means they can only be released when the individual officer agrees or the city manager or council believes release is necessary to maintain public confidence. Two officer-involved shootings of civilians by Greensboro police have been caught on body cameras in the last year. In both cases the officers declined to release the video. Greensboro was the first large police department in the state to deploy body cameras to all of its patrol officers. Some smaller agencies have followed its lead in declaring the records subject to the personnel privacy statute. 

The revised bill that passed Thursday creates a new exemption under the criminal investigation section of the public records law for both dashboard cameras and body-worn cameras. 

If the bill passes it would resolve an open question in the public records law: How to treat police videos from dashboard cameras and body cameras. The current law does not address either type of video, and there is no binding case precedent.

In 2009, a Randolph County superior court judge said that dashboard camera video in the death of Courtland Smith, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student, was subject to the criminal investigation exemption when several news outlets filed a public records lawsuit to get access. That case was not appealed to a higher court that could establish precedent. 

Also in 2009, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina found in a wrongful death case, McDonald v. Suggs, that dashboard camera video may be subject to the privacy protections of the personnel statute and issued a protective order for the video during discovery. A federal court’s interpretation of state law is not binding. 

Police departments in North Carolina have frequently cited the criminal investigation exemption in declining to release dashboard camera video. House Bill 713 would give them the discretion to continue doing so. 

Read a News & Record report on the bill here