In California, an increasing number of law enforcement officers are using body cameras [more commonly referred to as “body cams”], which are attached to their clothing to record the encounters and work they perform while on duty.
Proponents claim the goal is to increase the public’s trust and confidence in all peace officers, including the most obvious such as the police, sheriffs and CHP; as such, there may be 25% or more police agencies currently utilizing these devices. Additionally, it affords officers an opportunity to have actual evidence of their work in the field, and to defend against false accusations such as police brutality. Others accept transparency and police accountability as a valid premise, however, note the fact these devices can be shut-off and/or not turned on as a reason they feel far less confident in the process.
In criminal cases, body cam footage is available to defense lawyers as part of the discovery. On the other hand, such video records are not readily available in civil cases. However, during the earlier 2017 sessions of the California legislature, Assembly Bill 748 would have made the footage of body cams a public record; although proposed and later amended, AB 748 remains unapproved at this point. Hence, the public does not have an absolute right to the disclosure of video and audio recordings by law enforcement officers.
This subject might seem straightforward to most observers however, it is not. One of the arguments against the public’s right to obtain such audio and video recordings involves a person’s individual right to privacy. Whether it is a traffic violation, a misdemeanor &/or a serious felony, all of us believe in the premise “one is innocent until proven guilty.” As such, an individual’s identity, license number, address and other personal information that is part of the cam footage is and should remain protected. Until the Legislature adopts standards that can be incorporated into a bill that is passed and then signed by the governor, or becomes a referendum initiated by a vote of the public, the matter remains an open issue depending upon the local jurisdictions in California and/or the courts that may deal with it on a case by case basis.