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California Court: Police Drone Footage From 911 Calls Is Not Exempt From Public Records Law

Police were refusing to release footage after freedom of information requests.

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The California Court of Appeal for the 4th District has decided that video material from police drones, collected in response to 911 calls, cannot be hidden from the public in every case.

The drones in question operate under a scheme known as, Drones as First Responders (DFR), pioneered by the Chula Vista Police Department, while the court was looking into a case brought by a journalist attempting to gain access to some of this video content as a public record.

We obtained a copy of the decision for you here.

The reporter, La Prensa’s Arturo CastaƱares, took legal action which led to a first-instance court ruling against him, and allowing the police department to keep all the material secret.

The court’s reasoning was that video footage is not included in the California Public Records Act, which regulates the disclosure of investigatory records, writes the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF.

Clearly, things didn’t end there and now the court of appeals has ruled that there is in fact no categorical exemption of videos obtained from drones, when it comes to public disclosure. The ruling also went into the nature of 911 calls – some in fact pertain to criminal activity and are therefore a part of a police investigation – but not all, the court of appeals noted.

One example cited in the judgment is a report about a dangerous wild animal in a neighborhood. And for that reason, there are no grounds to impose a blanket ban on public disclosure of all video material resulting from 911 calls.

“The drone video footage should not be treated as a monolith, but rather, it can be divided into separate parts corresponding to each specific call. Then each distinct video can be evaluated under the CPRA (the California Public Records Act) about the call triggering the drone dispatch,” said the court.

EFF, the First Amendment Coalition, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supported the journalist with an amicus curiae, saying that, “categorically excluding all drone footage from public disclosure could have troubling consequences on the public’s ability to understand and oversee the police drone program.”

These groups also looked at the case from the angle of the high potential for privacy violations stemming from the widespread use of drones (which increases with DFR and similar programs now adopted by other police departments across the US).

The gist of this argument is that drones represent a cheap way to carry out comprehensive surveillance of the population and that this method of police work should therefore be the subject of public scrutiny – through disclosure.

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