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Public defender Jeff Adachi is unhappy about an attempt to squelch public access to police video

By Tim Redmond

JUNE 6, 2014 — District Attorney George Gascon is trying to keep secret a California Highway Patrol video from a drunk-driving arrest, potentially setting a precedent that could undermine the public’s right to monitor police.

The case involves Jeanine T. Williams, who was stopped by CHP officers and charged with drunk driving, driving without a license, and driving without registration. It is, on the surface, a fairly typical case, and Williams is represented by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

But there’s an unusual element: Gascon is filing papers asking the court to prevent defense lawyers from making public any part of a video that CHP officers took of the event.

Like a growing number of police agencies, the CHP equips its cars with cameras that record most incidents involving officers. The so-called Mobile Audio and Video Recording System (MAVRS) lets the agency keep track of its officers behavior and collects information that can help the prosecution prove its case.

But the video can also at times be helpful to the defense, and by law, Gascon has to turn the tapes over to the public defender. He’s insisting that he will do so only if the defense lawyers agree not to release any part of the video to the press, not to share it with anyone not involved in the case, and to return it when the case is closed.

That’s a big problem, Adachi told me.

“Our concern is that if the protective order is granted, it could set a precedent in other cases,” he said. “We see this as an attempt to shield the CHP from public disclosure.”

It’s not as if these videos are always tightly controlled. They’ve been turned over to TV stations for crime reports on many occasions, Adachi said. “In some cases I know that the CHP has released them. They pop up everywhere.”

If Gascon has his way, the CHP would still be able to make videos public when it wants to – but defense lawyers would not. “The order the DA is seeking doesn’t apply to the CHP or the prosecution, only to the defense,” Adachi said.

There’s no reason to believe that the tape would show police misconduct – or that it wouldn’t. “At this point,” Adachi said, “we just want to know what the facts are.”

But in briefs opposing the protective order, Adachi’s office goes further. The lawyers argue that the tapes are, and ought to be, not just turned over to the defense but treated as public records.

The DA argues that the tapes “may contain protected peace officer personnel records … peace officer safety/tactics information, as well as personal information of citizens who may or may not be involved in the criminal incident at hand.” The operative word, of course, is “may” – Gascon has offered no evidence in his filings to suggest that there’s anything confidential on the tapes.

But in a broader sense, the whole idea that it’s secret is a bit crazy: The videos were taken, Adachi’s office argues, on a public street – any passerby could have recorded the same information on a cell phone, and posted it on YouTube, without violating any laws or confidentiality rules.

“The MVARS here recorded public information; it is a public record,” the public defender’s pleadings state. “CHP radio communication is not private or confidential; in fact, much police radio traffic can be heard with a scanner or an Internet connection.”

The legal papers note that the courts have long held the public has an interest in holding police officers accountable: “The public has a legitimate interest not only in the conduct of individual police officers but in how local law enforcement agencies conduct the public’s business.”

As Adachi noted, in a case involving police officers at the Henry Hotel, video that the public defender’s office obtained and released showed the cops engaging in behavior that “directly contradicted what was in the written police reports.”

That video led to multiple indictments of officers.

Again: We have no reason to believe the CHP video from this particular drunk-driving arrest contains anything even remotely troubling. But there’s an important precedent here, and if Gascon can convince a judge that this police video – taken by public employees, with a camera paid for by taxpayers, in a public location on a public street – must be kept secret, it will be that much harder for the press and public to keep the police honest.

I’ve tried to get a comment from Gascon’s office, but so far nobody has called me back.