FAC Co-Authors Amicus Letter to California Appeals Court in Support of Disclosing Police Drone Footage

Update: On 12/27/2023, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a decision agreeing with our position that all police drone video footage is not categorically exempt from disclosure. See the decision here.

The First Amendment Coalition, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted a friend-of-the-court letter to California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal urging it to overturn the trial court’s decision in Castañares v. City of Chula Vista, a California Public Records Act (CPRA) case.

In 2021, Arturo Castañares, the publisher of La Prensa San Diego, a bilingual Spanish-English newspaper, asked the city to disclose drone video footage taken by the Chula Vista Police Department. The city denied the request, claiming that all drone footage falls within the CPRA’s exemption for “investigatory records,” which don’t have to be disclosed to the public.

Castañares filed a CPRA lawsuit for the footage soon after the city’s denial. In its decision released April 10, 2023, the trial court ruled against Castañares and agreed with the city that drone footage is categorically exempt from disclosure under the CPRA. In addition, the court ruled it would be too burdensome for Chula Vista to review and redact the drone footage before releasing it under the CPRA.

The letter co-authored by FAC argues the trial court erred because the CPRA’s investigatory records exemption only applies to investigations of specific crimes, and not all drone videos are crime investigation videos, as the city’s own policies admit. In fact, Chula Vista is among the first cities in the country to use drones to respond to 911 calls, and as FAC Legal Director David Loy pointed out to the San Diego Union-Tribune, not all calls for service are to investigate crimes. “It could be that my cat is missing,” Loy said.

As the letter also argues, it is far from unduly burdensome to require the city to review the video footage and redact any portions that might be properly exempt from disclosure. Law enforcement agencies routinely do the same for body camera videos, and the city itself posted redacted drone footage on its website.

The letter points out this case is critically important for the future of police transparency: “The CPRA is an important accountability tool that should be interpreted to allow oversight of modern law enforcement technologies. If the investigatory record exemption does broadly shield drone footage from ever being disclosed, it would blunt public understanding of a technology that is being used to replace basic police activity. And that reasoning could worryingly be applied to future technologies.”