Ohio Supreme Court Finds That Release of Police Body-Camera Video within Reasonable Period of Time not a Violation of Ohio Public Records Law

In State ex. rel. Cincinnati Enquirer, et al. v. Deters, Pros. Attorney, released on December 20, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court was faced with several important issues raised by the use by police departments of body-camera video. The Court determined that, assuming such video constitutes a "public record," public bodies are entitled to a reasonable amount of time to review the video for needed redactions before the video must be released. This case is a reminder that public bodies must be prepared for the age of ubiquitous video, which is upon us.

Numerous Cincinnati media outlets requested body-camera video from the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office. The body-camera video had captured the shooting of a motorist by a University of Cincinnati police officer subsequent to a traffic stop. Three of the media outlets had not actually requested the body-camera video from the prosecutor's office, but had requested it from other sources (police departments). The Court dismissed these claims because these relators had not requested the video from the prosecutor's office (the sole respondent in the mandamus action).

In initially refusing to release the video, the prosecutor's office had asserted that body-camera video should not be released because such release could jeopardize a fair trial. The prosecutor's office also argued that the videos could reveal confidential investigatory techniques or procedures, and/or constituted investigatory work-product. It was also argued that the videos were either a confidential law-enforcement investigatory record or a trial-preparation record, and therefore exempt from release. Ultimately, because the video was released, the Court did not need to determine if any of the asserted grounds for refusing to the release of the video was valid. The Court assumed, without deciding the issue, that a body-camera video is a public record.

Instead, the Court denied the writ because the Court determined that, even if the requested body-camera video is a public record, the purpose of a mandamus action is to compel the release of records. Because the video had been released by the prosecutor's office two days after the action was filed, the mandamus action had been rendered moot.

In addressing whether the statutory penalty and legal fees should be paid to the relators, the Court noted that "***the prosecutor was entitled to review the video to determine whether any redaction was necessary and produced the body-camera video six business days after it was initially received by his office***." The Court concluded this was a reasonable period of time. Consequently, the relators were not entitled to statutory damages or attorney fees.

Public bodies, and law enforcement agencies in particular, should take note of this case and be prepared to respond to public records requests for body-camera video. Public bodies may need to redact portions of the video via pixelating or otherwise obscuring the images of persons or things that are shown in the video. Alternatively, the public body may need to be prepared to argue why the entire video should not be released. A thorough review of both police body-camera policy and public record policy is advisable to determine if the issues raised by this case have been adequately addressed. It is also advisable to develop a plan for redacting video as most police departments do not have this capacity in-house.

Stephen Byron is a partner, and Susan Bungard is an associate in the firm's Public Law Services group.