Considering the Use of Video Cameras for Law Enforcement – Don’t Forget These Important Issues

Local governments in every region of the United States have begun using video cameras to assist with law enforcement matters.  Red light cameras and dashboard video equipment can be found in thousands of jurisdictions across the country, including many cities and counties in Oregon.  The latest trend, however, is to purchase small, durable cameras designed to be worn on police officers' uniforms.  According to recent news reports, one company alone has already supplied these cameras to more than 1,100 police agencies. The stated purposes for these cameras, at least according to one recent news article, “is to capture video from the officer's point of view, for use as evidence against suspects, as well as to help monitor officers' behavior toward the public.”  In one high profile case, a video that was taped using one of these cameras is being used to investigate a police shooting.  As reported in local newspapers, the Oakland police pulled over a car for an unspecified violation, only to watch the passenger flee on foot.  One officer caught the suspect, who had a gun and drugs, and shot him during a struggle.  The video, captured by the camera worn by the officer who shot the suspect, is being used to investigate the shooting.

As these news reports demonstrate, there are many policy issues for a jurisdiction to consider before providing police officers with uniform cameras.  In addition to these policy considerations, public officials in Oregon need to keep in mind several legal issues, including but not limited to:

  • Before a jurisdiction adopts a policy to require officers to use the wearable cameras, the jurisdiction will likely need to negotiate the ground rules with the local police union;
  • Policy and procedures need to be adopted to ensure that officers inform the public that they are recording their interactions with the police, as well as to set forth when and under what circumstances the camera should be used;
  • Policies need to be adopted to retain the recordings in accordance with the state’s Public Records laws; and
  • Polices need to be adopted in accordance with the state’s Public Records laws regarding when and under what circumstances videos taped by these cameras will be made available to the public

Even though these cameras are not yet in widespread use in Oregon, the legal issues associated with using video equipment to tape police interactions with the public has already begun to cause legal concerns.  Late last month, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a Cottage Grove man who was arrested for secretly videotaping his traffic stop after the police officer informed the individual that the dashboard camera was recording the stop.  This case has led several jurisdictions to consider whether and how to enforce the state law at issue in this case, which prohibits the recording of a conversation if not all participants are specifically informed that the conversation is being recorded.

Because of the complexities related to the myriad of legal issues described above, we strongly encourage you to contact us for advice if your jurisdiction is considering adopting the use of uniform cameras for your police force.

Ninth Circuit OKs Red Light Cameras in Washington

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a district court decision that dismissed a class action lawsuit against various Washington municipalities.   The plaintiffs, who were fined after their vehicles were photographed running red lights, sued the municipalities claiming that Washington law prohibited the amounts they were fined.

The plaintiffs argued that state law required the amount of the fine to be no more than the average or typical fine for a parking infraction.  In rejecting this argument, the court noted that the statute’s plain language is not susceptible to such an interpretation.  RCW 46.63.170(2) states “the amount of the fine issued for an infraction generated through the use of an automated traffic safety camera shall not exceed the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.”  The court noted that nothing in the statute prohibited a jurisdiction from imposing an amount that corresponded to the highest amount for another local parking infraction.

This case represents a big victory for the Washington municipalities that rely on such cameras to patrol busy or dangerous intersections and thoroughfares.  For better or worse, local governments increasingly rely on these cameras to enforce traffic laws as budgets continued to be squeezed and demands for public services continues to rise.