Police Video


The state's highest court has said the public, including the news media, do not have to bring a lawsuit to get access to police body-worn camera videos and can instead use the easier and less expensive process of petitioning a superior court judge.

The 5-2 May 23 ruling split the North Carolina Supreme Court's Republicans and overrode an N.C. Court of Appeals decision that had narrowed the public's path to accessing bodycam and other law enforcement videos. That lower court ruling also stopped the Citizen Times in its attempts to get footage of police encounters, as it had done successfully in 2022 with video of the violent arrest of a Navy veteran in Woodfin.

Commenting to the Citizen Times May 29, N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych, who argued the case, said the high court understood state lawmakers intended an easier process than the Court of Appeals laid out. "The Supreme Court clearly recognized the efficiency of the process, using form petitions to seek release of recordings versus a full-blown lawsuit to put these matters before a judge," Tadych said.

Bodycam footage is not public record, according to the state's custodial law enforcement recordings law. It's possible for members of the public to gain access, though in many cases it requires a court order. In one allowance, now affirmed by the Supreme Court, a member of the public not depicted in the footage can fill out a $200 petition and argue before a superior court judge that there is a compelling public interest for release of video.

The case, decided this month, originated with Superior Court Judge Andrew Hanford's 2021 granting of media organizations' petition for police footage of a racial justice protest the year prior in Alamance County. Officers from different law enforcement agencies had used pepper spray on a crowd that included children, according to the Burlington Times-News.

Police appealed and a Court of Appeals panel in a split 2-1 decision said the law had been misinterpreted in allowing the general public to use the petition process. But a majority of the Supreme Court justices disagreed.

"We do not accept the Graham Police Department’s argument to this court that the statute required petitioners to file a civil action instead of a petition," wrote Justice Trey Allen. That was because state legislators did not necessarily mean a "civil action" when they used the word "action" in the statute, the court said. Joining Allen were fellow Republican Justices Tamara Barringer and Richard Dietz, as well as Democratic Justices Anita Earls and Allison Riggs.

In his dissent, Justice Phil Berger Jr. said the petition was an expedited process meant for specific situations. "When the General Assembly indicated that it wanted a proceeding to be commenced by filing a petition, it was very clear," Berger wrote in the dissent, joined by fellow Republican and Chief Justice Paul Newby. [Source]