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Washington Prison Video Surveillance Recordings Exempt from Disclosure Under Public Records Act

by Mike Brodheim

In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington affirmed a trial court’s order dismissing an action filed by a state prisoner who alleged that the Department of Corrections (DOC) had violated the Public Records Act (PRA) when it refused to release prison surveillance video recordings. In so doing, the appellate court held the DOC had established that the recordings included intelligence information that was essential to effective law enforcement, and therefore were statutorily exempt from disclosure.

Through counsel, Frederick Fischer, a state prisoner confined at the Monroe Correctional Complex, submitted a request under the PRA for copies of surveillance video recordings which purportedly showed that he had been assaulted in the prison law library on November 20, 2007. Why Fischer needed the video footage was not reported. After the DOC denied his PRA request, Fischer filed for relief in state court, which took evidence at a show cause hearing in October 2009 and then dismissed the action.

On appeal, the appellate court noted that, upon request, public records must be disclosed unless specifically exempted by statute. It further noted that RCW 42.56.240(1) exempted from disclosure intelligence information gathered by law enforcement agencies if disclosure of such information would compromise effective law enforcement activities.

Fischer contended that the specific recordings he had requested were not exempt under that provision because the monitor on which the recordings were displayed could be viewed in “real time” by prisoners in the library, and hence were not “essential to effective law enforcement.”

The Court of Appeals rejected Fischer’s argument. The Court noted that “real-time images do not reveal which cameras are [actually] recording, the hours of recording, the resolution and field of view of recording cameras, or staff members’ ability to control specific cameras.” Nor do such images reveal “which cameras are not being actively monitored, the location of hidden cameras, which cameras are not working, or which camera housings are empty.”

“Concealment of the full recording capabilities of [the DOC’s video surveillance] systems,” the appellate court concluded, “is critical to its effectiveness.” See: Fischer v. Washington State Dept. of Corrections, 159 Wash.App. 1039 (Wash.App. Div.1 2011); 2011 WL 300253, review denied.

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Related legal case

Fischer v. Washington State Dept. of Corrections