Journal Files Response in Police Dash Cam Case


Police dash cameras capture loads of footage. But who should get to see it? - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • Police dash cameras capture loads of footage. But who should get to see it?
The North Coast Journal filed a reply Monday to the city of Eureka’s appeal of a Humboldt County judge’s order to release video footage of a police officer arresting a juvenile in 2012.

In its reply brief, the Journal argues the city has provided the California First District Court of Appeals with no evidence supporting its argument that the video in question should be considered a confidential police officer personal record, and that there was “substantial evidence” to support Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Christopher Wilson’s ruling that releasing the video was in the public interest.

In an opening brief filed in October, Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson argued that the video depicting the Dec. 6, 2012 arrest of a juvenile suspect should be considered a “confidential police officer personnel record” and given special protections because one of the arresting officers — former Sgt. Adam Laird — was accused of using excessive force, an allegation that ultimately led to criminal charges and an internal affairs investigation.

The misdemeanor case against Laird was ultimately dropped by prosecutors, who felt they could not prove the charges of assault under the color of authority and falsifying a police report beyond a reasonable doubt. Laird, who argued in his defense that he'd been targeted for his political views and unfairly singled out for prosecution in the case, retired from EPD in July 2014 following the settlement of a claim he brought against the city stemming from its handling of the case.

In November of 2014, the Journal petitioned a juvenile court to release the video, arguing that the “public has a right to know exactly what happened during (the juvenile’s) arrest in order to evaluate the performance of both its police officers and prosecutors.”

In May, Wilson granted the petition and ordered the video released, noting that neither the juvenile nor his father objected to the video’s being made public and finding that release would be in the public interest. The city immediately appealed to a higher court, first unsuccessfully petitioning the appellate court for extraordinary relief on the grounds that Wilson abused his discretion, and then pursuing a simple appeal.

In its brief, the city argued that the process of petitioning a juvenile court to release records cannot be used to circumvent procedures governing the release of confidential police officer personnel records, which are given a host of special protections under California law. Further, the city argues that the video in question should fall under the definition of personnel records outlined in Penal Code section 832.8, which states they include “complaints, or investigation of complaints, concerning an event or transaction in which [a named officer] participated, or which he or she perceived, and pertaining to the manner in which he or she performed his or her duties.” Because a citizen complaint was filed against Sgt. Laird following the juvenile’s arrest, the video becomes a confidential part of his personnel record, the city argued.

“The Legislature has left the definition of personnel records broad, and the video recording at issue would fall in this broad definition,” City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson wrote in the city’s brief.

The Journal’s brief, filed Monday by Davis attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, who is representing the Journal in the appeal, makes a number of procedural and legal arguments.

First, the brief argues that the city filed an incomplete record on appeal. In the appellate process, the party appealing a lower court’s ruling has the obligation of providing the appellate court with a record of the lower court’s proceeding, allowing it to evaluate how the lower court came to the ruling that’s under appeal. In this case, Boylan argues, the record filed by the city omits a court reporter’s transcript of one of the hearings before Wilson because the reporter was allegedly unable or unwilling to provide the city with a copy. The city also didn’t include a copy of the video in question — which Boylan calls the “most important piece of evidence” Wilson reviewed in coming to his ruling — as a part of the record.

Without the reporter’s transcript and the video itself, Boylan argues the appellate court must give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and presume both included sufficient evidence to support his ruling.

Second, Boylan argues that the city simply didn’t present any evidence to support the notion that the video shouldn't be released. “There is a good reason for this omission: There is no evidence in the record whatsoever supporting any argument that the video should remain secret,” Boylan wrote, later adding that the city has failed to provide the court with any evidence that the video was or is, in fact, a part of Laird’s personnel file or the investigation of a citizen complaint against him.

Finally, Boylan argues that Wilson was provided with plenty of evidence to support his ruling, most notably the video itself, before deciding that releasing the video was in the public interest. Additionally, Boylan points out, Wilson considered the city’s personnel record argument and dismissed it, finding that the Journal wasn’t seeking the type of record that would be afforded the procedural protections granted to confidential police officer personnel records.

The appellate court is now giving the county of Humboldt 30 days to reply to the briefs submitted in the case so far, after which the city will have the opportunity to file a response brief before the case goes to oral arguments.

Jeremy Price, an appellate attorney representing the juvenile in the case, sent the court a letter Monday indicating he does not plan to file a brief, as he’s reviewed the Journal’s filings and feels his client’s “interests are adequately represented by the brief filed on behalf of [the Journal].”

Those so interested can track the appellate case as it progresses through the system here, and read “Exempt from Disclosure,” the Journal’s Aug. 6 cover story on the topic here and a full report on the city's opening brief here. And those who enjoy poring through court filings can read the briefs for themselves by clicking the PDFs below.

The city's opening brief The Journal's response brief
Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reporter personally filed the petition seeking disclosure of the dash cam video in this case and authored the lower court filings on behalf of the Journal.

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