from the fingers-crossed-for-a-fee-shift dept
Once again, a government agency is attempting to price itself out of the public records market. The Hayward (CA) police department told the National Lawyers Guild that it needed to come up with $3,000 before it would turn over requested body camera footage.
In response to this gouging, the ACLU, in conjunction with the NLG, has opened up its
wallet legal fund.
The suit alleges that, on Jan. 27, 2015, the NLG, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, submitted a PRA request to Hayward PD for body worn camera footage from Hayward police officers who participated in crowd control during demonstrations in December 2014 to protest the refusal of grand juries to indict police officers involved in the deaths of two African American men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A number of protestors were injured by the police during these demonstrations. On May 15, 2015, Hayward PD informed the NLG that they would have to pay the department $2,938.58 in order to receive the first round of body camera footage requested. The NLG paid this amount under protest, and faces similar cost bills for the additional video footage requested.The ACLU points out that the PD's demand for nearly $3,000 in fees violates several parts of California's public records law.
Information that is in an electronic format must be made available in an electronic format when requested by any person and, when applicable, must comply with the following: (1) The agency shall make the information available in any electronic format in which it holds the information. (2) The agency shall provide a copy of the electronic record in the format requested if the requested format is one that has been used by the agency to create copies for its own use or for provision to other agencies.Furthermore, the ACLU notes that a failure to rein in the PD's demands for excessive fees will not only dissuade others from exercising their right to examine public records, but encourage the department to continue levying unlawful fees.
The cost of duplication shall be limited to the direct cost of producing a copy of a record in an electronic format. Gov. Code § 6253.9(a).
An agency is only permitted to impose additional charges when the request would require data compilation, extraction, or programming to produce the record. Gov. Code § 6253.9(b).
The body camera video requested do not require compilation, extraction or programming.
Respondents have failed to make the records "promptly available" as required by Government Code § 6253(b).
Respondents require payment of unauthorized and excessive charges for the duplication and production of police body camera and hand held videos as a condition of producing such records to members of the public.
I do think the PD can legitimately argue some form of compilation and extraction has been performed to isolate the video footage requested, but it offered no explanation for the amount it charged for processing, much less what steps it took that resulted in this unknown number of billable hours.
Using fees to stymie requesters is one of the easiest ways for government agencies to maintain the opacity they're used to operating under. Even when the demand for excessive fees is accompanied by an explanation of the "costs" the agency is looking to recoup, the breakdowns seem to raise just as many questions as they answer. Whether it's the insistence on charging page duplication fees for responses served electronically, or somehow claiming a record system is impervious to existing search methods, the government still holds most of the cards when it comes to keeping the public separated from public records.