State Supreme Court Declines to Hear Chula Vista Police Drone Case, Potentially Opening Door for Public Access to Some Footage

The Supreme Court has denied the city of Chula Vista's request to a lower court ruling that could require the Department to release some of its drone footage to the public. This decision effectively upholds the December appellate court ruling, which questioned whether all drone footage should be considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure under the California Public Records Act, reports The San Diego Tribune.

Background

Chula Vista has been using drones for several years to provide real-time surveillance of scenes before police officers arrive. The department began using drones as part of an FAA test program to determine how to safely integrate drones into national airspace. Since then, the department has conducted thousands of flights and has been granted permission to fly drones beyond the pilot's line of sight.

In 2021, Arturo Castañares, a Chula Vista resident and publisher of La Prensa San Diego, filed a lawsuit after the city refused to release any drone footage, claiming that all footage was investigatory and thus exempt from public disclosure.

Appellate Court Ruling

In December, the 4th District Court of Appeal took a more nuanced approach to the issue. While acknowledging that investigatory videos are confidential, the court questioned whether every video met that standard. The court suggested that some drone footage could be related to incidents as benign as searching for a stranded motorist or checking a water leak.

David Loy, director of the First Amendment Coalition, commented on the appellate court's decision, stating, “The court of appeal said you have to take a granular approach. The California Supreme Court correctly declined to review that position because that is what the law already says.”

Implications and Next Steps

The Supreme Court's denial to review the case makes the appellate court ruling the law of the land in California. However, the number of videos that could become public remains to be determined.

The case will now return to the trial court, where the city will determine which videos, if any, are not related to specific police investigations and are thus potentially releasable. Chula Vista has expressed concerns about the cost and privacy risks associated with redacting personal information from the videos.

Castañares' attorney, Cory Briggs, emphasized the importance of and verification in law enforcement, stating, “We trust law enforcement, but we also get to verify what they tell us. We get to ask them for proof that it is part of an investigation.”

The California Supreme Court's decision to decline review of the Chula Vista case has the potential to open the door for public access to some drone footage. While the exact number of videos that may become public remains unclear, the appellate court ruling has established guidelines for determining which videos should be disclosed. As the case returns to the trial court, the role of drones in police surveillance and the balance between public transparency and privacy concerns will continue to be a topic of discussion.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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