Sonoma County District Attorney clamps down on body-cam footage, riling defense lawyers
Defense attorneys and First Amendment activists are assailing a move by Sonoma County prosecutors to prevent the disclosure of police body camera recordings to the general public, saying it hampers accountability and transparency at a time of increased scrutiny of officer-involved incidents.
The District Attorney’s Office is now requiring criminal defense lawyers to sign an agreement before receiving body-and dash-cam recordings, promising, among other things, not to upload the videos to the internet.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the stipulations are meant to protect the privacy of uninvolved third parties including victims and children, whose images are sometimes recorded by the cameras.
Also, she said they will ensure the integrity of the legal process, which could be threatened by the release of “so much information through the body camera process.”
“We’re all trying to catch up to technology,” Ravitch said. “But we’re not trying to hide anything.”
But critics are crying foul, saying the blanket requirement is an attack on due-process rights and runs counter to public support for body cameras in the first place.
Catherine Wagner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said protective orders should be sought on a case-by-case basis and granted only in rare instances such as an interview with a child sex-assault victim.
Otherwise, the records should remain open, especially if they involve allegations of police wrongdoing or use of force, Wagner said.
She called Ravitch’s policy “troubling.”
“It seems to me the effort from this particular district attorney to prevent the footage from getting out is another stumbling block to realizing the public’s interest in having body cameras at all,” Wagner said.
Some defense lawyers are refusing to sign, forcing judges to intervene and delaying the outcome of cases. Legal challenges could rise to higher courts.
Meanwhile, members of the county’s private defense bar have requested a meeting next week with Ravitch to air their concerns.
“It’s just one more mechanism to keep everything hush-hush,” said Santa Rosa attorney Ryan Wilber, who is seeking a police recording in a client’s drunken-driving case.
Another defense attorney, Walter Rubenstein, said prosecutors are allowing private lawyers to view videos without a signed order. But they must do it in the District Attorney’s Office and cannot take a copy, he said.
Rubenstein said in light of recent police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana, it “seems like the wrong time to do that.”
“People are calling for more transparency,” said Rubenstein, a board member of the Sonoma County Bar Association representing the criminal law section. “We should have a thoughtful, in-depth discussion about this.”
The prosecutor’s body cam agreement is part of an emerging area of the law and appears modeled on policies in Napa County and by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. It is not clear how many other jurisdictions have followed suit.
In Sonoma County, it comes amid the release of several controversial police videos posted on the internet. In one, defense attorneys posted video of correctional deputies in the county jail shooting a man with Taser weapons in a brutality case that settled for $1.25 million. More recently, the Sheriff’s Office posted video of the arrest of a Petaluma teenager, Gabbi Lemos, that is the subject of ongoing criminal and civil litigation.
Under the law, prosecutors are required to turn over all evidence supporting criminal charges, including videos. Defense attorneys are barred from publicly disseminating information identifying victims or witnesses in things like police reports, 911 tapes or lab results. They also may not publish information subject to a judge’s protective order.
Ravitch said body camera videos should be treated the same way to ensure victims’ privacy rights.
“We’re not preventing defendants from using this information in presenting their case,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said. “The only thing we’re asking is that the statutory privacy rights of the victims and witnesses be protected and not disclosed for an unauthorized purpose, unrelated to the criminal prosecution.”
The stipulation contains seven provisions, including a ban on downloading videos onto any website. Also, it says the recording can’t be used in any other case, such as a civil lawsuit, and requires videos be returned to prosecutors within 90 days of a case’s resolution.
It is valid only after it is signed by both sides and approved by a judge.
Ravitch said it was rolled out earlier this year after being vetted by the court and Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, who initially lent partial support to protect her clients’ privacy. Pozzi has since instructed her attorneys not to agree to certain provisions, including the return portion.
“Upon further research I feel she can’t do a protective order across the board on every case,” Pozzi said.
She said she would continue to discuss the issue with Ravitch to seek refinements.
The private defense bar was not consulted, Ravitch said.
The policy does not prevent defendants from seeking copies of videos directly from police agencies, she said.
“I think social media is being used more and more to litigate cases rather than presenting cases in a courtroom,” Ravitch said. “I’m trying to protect the privacy interests of those who should not be dragged into the public arena.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ppayne.