As the nation struggles with the ongoing turmoil resulting from police violence and excessive force, the controversy surrounding video of Andrew Brown's death at the hands of Pasquotank Sheriff Deputies has received significant attention. A court ruling on the question is expected today, and WRAL reports that the local District Attorney has asked the DA to delay release of the video for 30 days, citing the possibility of release hindering the investigation. The Sheriff is on record as claiming that he wants the video released, so what is the holdup? UPDATE: A little before noon today, the Superior Court judge hearing the matter denied the media's petition for release of the video of Andrew Brown's death, on somewhat questionable grounds that are likely to be considered to be within his discretion.
North Carolina law requires a court order to release law enforcement body camera footage.
The questions of release or disclosure of law enforcement recordings is governed by North Carolina General Statute Section 132-1.4A. This law is a derogation of the public records law, and these videos are specifically exempt from the provisions of that law. As I have previously described, the law requires a civil suit for release of the video, but also allows for "disclosure" of the video to a person or their personal representative. That is how Mr. Brown's family and attorney were able to view portions of the video prior to court ruling. It's not clear why the portion they were allowed to view was limited to a 20 second clip, but according to media accounts, that 20 second portion was enough to lead them to conclude that Mr. Brown (who was unarmed) was wrongfully shot in the back of the head.
Multiple high profile calls have been made to change the body camera release law
As of this writing, identical bills have been introduced in the North Carolina House (HB 698) and Senate (SB 510) to modify the procedure to obtain law enforcement recordings. It is unclear whether they have a chance of passing. The bills would require release of these recordings within 48 hours unless the law enforcement agency obtains a court order to seal the video. This approach would likely address the twin concerns of ensuring accountability while also protecting innocent and compromised individuals from embarrassing or other problematic disclosures. I certainly have seen not only embarrassing situations but also nude people captured on body worn cameras during police intrusions into private places such as hotel rooms- it would seem that people in those situations should be able to also object to release or request limitations such as redactions on any release of video. Unfortunately, the newly introduced bill does not directly allow for notice and opportunity to be heard for individuals who are depicted in these recordings.
The near universal use of body worn cameras and dashboard cameras is vital for ensuring accountability for law enforcement, while also often providing valuable evidence for parties to a criminal legal dispute. It is high time that a better and more efficient system be developed for obtaining release of law enforcement recordings in North Carolina. For a primer on obtaining release of recordings under the current state of the law, check out an article I wrote in 2019: How do I get the body camera or other video from my encounter with law enforcement?