A state representative who’s proposed a Freedom of Information Act review office to hear grievances when agencies withhold information has introduced a bill that also calls for police dashcam footage to be exempt from public disclosure.
Footage captured by dashboard-mounted police cameras as officers patrol public roadways would no longer be publicly available to citizens or the press, according to the bill.
State Rep. Bill Taylor, a Republican from Aiken who is the bill’s sponsor, said he felt the dashcam footage is like body-camera footage — which is already exempt from public disclosure — in that there can be things captured on video that might improperly invade someone’s privacy.
“It needs to be looked at first,” Taylor said. “The sheriffs will tell you any time, and the police chiefs — ‘Look, we need to review this. We’re not trying to withhold it, but it can be very embarrassing, and it can be wrongly construed, and you can take 30 seconds of something…’ You and I wouldn’t want to be caught on it at either 2 in the morning with a body camera in our house or at the side of a highway with a dashcam, depending on the circumstances.”
While Taylor said that, for example, if a public official is stopped for driving under the influence and that traffic stop is captured on a dashcam, then “we probably do need to know about that,” the proposed law would make it so the public would not have access to that video unless the law enforcement agency decided on its own to release it.
“If this bill ever gets heard, there will probably be more discussion about all of that,” Taylor said. “When you file legislation, it’s only a starting place.”
South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers said the proposal is a “huge concern” in access to public records and police transparency.
“It’s an amazing reversal of a move toward openness following the violence and police violence,” Rogers said in reference to a tumultuous 2020 that included protests for police reform and civil unrest over concerns about injustice. “It would be very bad for our society. There is no expectation of privacy on a public street. It’s all to shield police misconduct.”
South Carolina Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder said he has not heard of anyone lobbying to withhold dashcam footage from the public. He said that was the argument made for bodycam footage when it was deemed exempt from disclosure based on cameras often capturing footage inside people’s private homes.
Bruder said Friday that he did not know about Taylor’s efforts to exempt dashcam footage from disclosure.
“The general discussion before was that for a number of reasons body cameras would be different from dashcams because it would be going in places that are not transitionally thought to be public — whereas dashcam would not be,” Bruder said. “It would of course be on public highways, so it would not catch things that would not be seen by the general public.”
The proposal was introduced on Jan. 12 and referred to the state House Judiciary Committee. Ultimately it will need to be passed by the full House and state Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.
Taylor’s proposal also calls for a FOIA review office run through the state’s administrative law court.
Rather than someone challenging public-records-request compliance via a lawsuit in state court, the administrative law court would have a judge dedicated to FOIA matters to hear cases much more efficiently, according to Taylor. Citizens or members of the media could represent themselves in court rather than having to hire a lawyer.
After several years of cases, a history of heard cases would be posted online for public viewing to refer to prior case law as needs arise in subsequent cases.
The idea came up in prior FOIA legislation but was removed.
“For it to be in administrative law court, I think it’s a wonderful idea because it behaves much like one would think of like a magistrate’s court. You can get a hearing there,” Taylor said. “Under this legislation, they would have one of the judges be a specialized FOI judge. You wouldn’t even need an attorney. Citizens could file it.”
Taylor said his experience as a journalist and media consultant has made him passionate about public-records issues. The 74-year-old is a former television news director, anchor and reporter who was a co-founder and CEO of media research and consulting firms, according to biographical information listed in the state House of Representatives website.
“With a FOIA, if you are stonewalled by let’s say a government agency, that could be a water board or a little town council, there are lots of reasons this happens, and there’s very little recourse,” Taylor said. “I think it’s really a user-friendly, citizen-friendly way to resolve these very important issues. Transparency in government is absolutely paramount in importance.”
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danieljgross.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Bill to create FOIA review office would withhold police dashcam video from public in SC
Published at Mon, 01 Feb 2021 03:01:00 +0000