Court Ruling on Police Drone Footage: A Shift in Public Record Norms

police drone footage, police using drones, police drones, ACLU, drones as first responder, DFR

Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 4.0]

California Appellate Court’s Decision Impacts Public Access to Police Drone Footage

by DRONELIFE Staff Writer Ian J. McNabb

Last week, a California appellate court ruled that video footage from police drones collected in response to 911 calls is not automatically exempt from public record. The decision by the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District came in a response to a journalist’s attempt to gain access to drone footage taken as part of the Chula Vista Police Department’s “Drones as First Responders” program, the first of its kind in the nation.

After the journalist, Arturo Castañares of La Prensa, sued the department, the trial court ruled that Chula Vista police could withhold all footage because the videos were exempt from disclosure as law enforcement investigatory records under the California Public Records Act, leading to an appeal.

The appellate court held that drone footage was not categorically exempt from public disclosure, as drones might be used to respond to non-crime events that still warranted a 911 call (for example, a mountain lion roaming a residential street). When they sent the decision back to trial court, they suggested that each individual video should be examined as to whether a crime actually occurred, after which the videos could be released to the public following the CPRA on a case-to-case basis.

This case serves to show the difficulty of integrating new technologies into existing reporting mechanisms, requiring California police departments interested in DFR programs to sort through their own footage to make the video of non-criminal 911 responses publicly available. However, the decision was welcomed by many privacy advocates, who argued that the police drone footage should be subject to the purview of civilian oversight, like other records generated by law enforcement.

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Ian McNabb is a staff writer based in Boston, MA. His interests include geopolitics, emerging technologies, environmental sustainability, and Boston College sports.