OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- The Oklahoma Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal to a state appellate court ruling that states dash-cam video made by the Claremore Police Department in 2011 does constitute a public record under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The City of Claremore had filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the Court of Civil Appeals ruling. That request was denied Monday, with all the Supreme Court justices concurring, court records show.
"It's basically an affirmation from the Oklahoma Supreme Court that the Civil Appeals decision was right, that the public does have a right to have access of the videotapes and dashcams," said attorney Josh Lee, who, along with attorneys Stephen Fabian and Clint Ward, fought for the release of the records. "It's a big win for open government, again.
"It's good for the press. It's good for the citizens accused."
Reversing a decision by a Rogers County judge, the state Court of Civil Appeals made its ruling May 31, also stating that city of Claremore must pay attorneys' fees as determined by a trial court.
Lee, Fabian and Ward routinely represent people accused of alcohol- and driving-related offenses. Fabian said he is preparing new litigation across the state for the same records sought from Claremore.
"It's always nice to carry the victory torch, when so many will benefit," Fabian said Tuesday in an emailed response to the Tulsa World.
Attorneys seeking the police video records of a client sued the city of Claremore in May 2011, alleging that the municipality violated the Open Records Act in refusing to provide requested videotapes and audiotapes from the arrest of Richard Stangland, a 22-year-old Claremore man who was charged in March of that year with aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol.
Stangland pleaded guilty in August 2011 to a reduced charge of DUI and received an 18-month deferred sentence.
Arguing for the release of the records, Fabian said then that audiotapes and videotapes are covered by the Open Records Act. Matt Ballard, who represents the city, told the court that videotapes are evidentiary and subject to the privilege of confidentiality.
The Open Records Act includes sound and video recordings in its definition of a public record.
After hearing evidence in the nonjury trial, Associate District Judge Sheila Condren ruled in August 2011 that the police department's dash-cam recording is a "direct piece of evidence" and "not a public record."
In an opinion written by Chief Judge Robert Bell, the state Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed.
"Appellees' argument -- and the trial court's holding -- that the video is exempt because it could be used as evidence in a subsequent criminal prosecution is without legal support," Bell wrote. "There is no such exemption enumerated in the (Open Records) Act."
Fabian won a lawsuit against the state Department of Public Safety in March 2005 after the Oklahoma Highway Patrol started denying the release of traffic arrest videos. Later that year, however, state lawmakers exempted the department's audio and video recordings from open records requests, making it the only law enforcement agency with such an exemption.
Fabian, who worked in law enforcement for about 20 years as a Wichita, Kan., police officer and general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said he has viewed thousands of police videos.
"I've seen just about everything you can see from a standpoint of how law enforcement deals with stuff over the years, from riding in the cars with them to being one (police officer)," Fabian told the Tulsa World in May. "There are situations where what they do out there is just absolutely un-understandable.
"But from the standpoint of protecting a law enforcement officer when they do their job right, it's the best thing in the world. I can't argue with that. It's what's right."
Copyright 2013 - Tulsa World, Okla.