This case required the Commonwealth Court to decide whether video recordings from cameras on buses can be exempt under the “noncriminal investigation” exemption to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (the “RTKL”). The Commonwealth Court held that a video recording taken prior to the start of an agency investigation can qualify under the noncriminal investigation exemption of the RTKL when it is downloaded or viewed for purposes of that investigation. As a result, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the “Port Authority”) did not have to disclose video recordings downloaded in relation to a property damage claim filed against it.
William Towne (the “Requester”) requested copies of video recordings taken from “all cameras aboard the bus running Route 67[,] which turned from Beeler onto Wilkins Avenue nearest to 10pm on the night of April 14, 2016.” The Requester sought these recordings after the Requester had collided with another vehicle the night of April 14, 2016 after trying to avoid a collision with a bus, and he filed a property damage claim with the Port Authority. The Port Authority denied the request, citing the “noncriminal investigation” exemption to the RTKL. The OOR subsequently granted the Requester’s appeal, and the Port Authority then petitioned the Commonwealth Court for review.
As a Commonwealth Agency, the Port Authority is required to disclose public records under the RTKL. However, records that are a part of a noncriminal investigation are exempt under Section 708(17)(ii) of the RTKL. This exemption protects investigative materials, notes, correspondence, reports, and other records from public disclosure so long as the noncriminal investigation was performed according to an agency’s official duties.
The OOR had concluded that, while the investigation of the Requester’s claims was related to the Port Authority’s legislatively-granted powers, the recordings were not a part of the investigation. The OOR reasoned that the recordings were created before the alleged incident, that they were destroyed as a matter of routine at least every thirty days, and that the recordings were not regularly downloaded or viewed. In other words, according to the OOR, the video recordings were created and maintained separately from the investigation.
The Commonwealth Court reversed the OOR’s decision and held that the fact that a record was created before an investigation began does not automatically mean the record is not a part of the investigation. Significant to the court’s decision was that the fact that the video recordings were only downloaded and viewed once the investigation of the Requester’s property damage claim was initiated. Otherwise, the records would have eventually been deleted without ever having been viewed. This was standard Port of Authority procedure, and, therefore, the records were sufficiently related to a noncriminal investigation to be exempt from disclosure under Section 708(17)(ii) of the RTKL.
Click here to read: Port Auth. of Allegheny Cty., 92 C.D. 2017 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. Sep. 12, 2017).
Edited by: Robert Turchick