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Police Body Camera Restrictions Proposed

April 20, 2015

Body cameras are increasingly used by law enforcement officers to improve transparency in the public’s interaction with police. A bill moving through the Florida legislature would limit the public’s access to police body camera footage. However, the proposal has been criticized by groups saying that it would defeat the very purpose of using the cameras.

Exempted Footage

Currently, video from police body cameras is a public record in Florida. Senate Bill 248 would exempt certain recordings from the public record, including:

  • Video shot within a private residence,
  • Video taken inside a physical or mental health care facility, and
  • Footage recorded in any other place where a reasonable person expects privacy.

A prior version of the bill also exempted footage shot at the scene of a medical emergency where someone is killed or is injured severely enough that medical treatment is required. However, this provision was eliminated because it essentially meant that any recording of an excessive use of force would be exempted.

Who Can Access Recordings

The bill would allow a law enforcement agency to release videos from body cameras “in furtherance of its official duties and responsibilities.” Agencies would be required to release videos, or the relevant portions thereof, to the people who are in the videos and to their personal representatives (e.g. a parent or an attorney). They would also be required to release recordings filmed inside residences to the occupants of the residences.

Third parties, including the media, would be required to go to court to get the videos unless they could obtain them elsewhere. In determining whether to release a recording to a third party, a judge would be required to consider eight criteria:

  • Whether there is a compelling interest in disclosure,
  • Whether the recording includes confidential information,
  • Whether the third party requesting disclosure is seeking evidence for a legal matter in which the third person is a party,
  • Whether disclosure would reveal sensitive personal information,
  • Whether disclosure would harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of anyone in the video,
  • Whether the administration of justice would be threatened by disclosure,
  • Whether the video could be redacted to protect privacy, and
  • Whether there is good cause to disclose the video.

Opponents of the bill have argued that the reputation provision is overbroad. They note that if a video recorded an officer doing wrong, the video would harm the officer’s reputation, and so the video likely would not be released. Proponents, however, argue that since anyone in the video could access it, victims of police brutality could release the recordings to the media.

The bill further provides for an increase in the time that police must preserve body camera footage, from 30 to 90 days. It also would require that agencies establish policies and train officers before they can wear body cameras.

Pros and Cons

The legislation was designed to address privacy concerns created by body cameras. Proponents argue that, because body camera videos are likely to capture sensitive personal information, people may be unwilling to cooperate with officers wearing body cameras. They also may be less willing to call the police in the first place if a recording of the encounter is publicly available.

Critics, however, argue that the bill conceals the excessive use of force from the public, and that the exemptions are too broad. They note that the purpose of body cameras is to protect officers from false accusations and to keep the public informed and thus reassured about the actions of law enforcement.

Because it is an amendment to the Sunshine Law, Florida’s public records law, the bill needs a two thirds majority in both chambers in order to pass. Also, it would sunset in five years unless reenacted.

If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, the services of a dedicated attorney are essential. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.

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