NC Supreme Court Orders Trial Court to Reconsider Gag Order in Greensboro Body Camera Case

The North Carolina Supreme Court held last December in In re Custodial Law Enforcement Recording, 2022-NCSC-125, 881 S.E.2d 96 (2022), that a trial court abused its discretion in denying the City of Greensboro’s motion to modify restrictions imposed on the release of police body camera recordings. The trial court had previously entered an order that allowed members of the Greensboro City Council to view the recordings, but prohibited them from disclosing or discussing their contents to or with others. When the City sought reconsideration of that order on the basis that the restrictions prevented council members from carrying out their duties, the court summarily denied the motion after noting that council members had not “bothered to watch” the video. The Supreme Court determined that the trial court’s failure to consider the City’s reasons for seeking the modification, relying only on council members’ failure to watch the recordings while the restrictions were in place, demonstrated an abuse of discretion.

Facts. In 2018, the City of Greensboro petitioned the superior court for release of police body camera videos from a 2016 incident in which Greensboro police officers arrested four Black men on a busy public sidewalk downtown. A cell phone video of the incident was posted to YouTube two days after it occurred. One of the arrested men reported the officers to the Professional Standards Division of the Greensboro Police Department, which conducted an internal investigation and concluded that the officers behaved appropriately. The man appealed that decision to the Greensboro Police Community Review Board (PCRB). At that point, the City (along with the PCRB and others) sought a court order for release of the videos.

The trial court ordered the videos released to the City on conditions. Only the city manager, city council members and city legal counsel were authorized to view the recordings. And the court prohibited these viewers from disclosing or discussing the recordings “except with each other in their official capacity as managers, council members and legal council . . . and as necessary to perform their legal duties.”

After the order was entered, the City Council voted unanimously to request that the trial court lift the restrictions on speaking about the recordings. Council members decided not to watch the videos until the order was modified. The City’s attorney filed a motion to modify the order, which the trial court summarily denied. The City appealed.

Procedural history. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order, holding that (1) the order did not impermissibly infringe on the City’s First Amendment rights, and (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in initially placing and later refusing to modify the restrictions. In re Custodial Law Enforcement Recording, 266 N.C. App. 473 (2019). As to the First Amendment issue, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the order only prevented city officials from disseminating information that the court order itself gave them a right to. Because city officials remained free to discuss information they learned from other sources, the Court of Appeals held that the order did not infringe on the City’s First Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals further reasoned that the restrictions were justified by the interest in protecting the reputation and safety of the people featured in the video and in safeguarding the administration of justice; thus, it determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing the restrictions.

The City sought review by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Analysis. The Supreme Court avoided the constitutional question, determining instead that the trial court’s summary denial of the City’s motion to modify was arbitrary and thus an abuse of discretion.

The Court explained that because G.S. 132-1.4A(g), the statute providing for court-ordered release of law enforcement agency recordings, expressly authorizes trial courts to “place any conditions or restrictions on the release of the recording that the court, in its discretion, deems appropriate,” orders imposing or denying relief from restrictions on the release of body camera videos are reviewed for abuse of discretion. A trial court abuses its discretion when its ruling is manifestly unsupported by reason or is so arbitrary that it could not have resulted from a reasoned decision.

The City provided several reasons why the restrictions were a substantial impediment: they contradicted council members’ duties as elected officials; they prevented council members from engaging in political discourse; they impeded council members’ ability to respond to questions from the public; and they prevented council members from supervising municipal departments. The City also argued that the restrictions were not justified as the internal investigations had concluded and the criminal trials of the people depicted in the videos were over. The trial court, as previously noted, referenced only the fact that council members had not watched the video and then summarily denied the motion.

The Supreme Court concluded that the ruling was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion. The Court cited the absence of any explanation from the trial court about how council members’ failure to watch the recordings related to the basis for the motion to modify. The Court noted that the trial court failed to mention any other reason for its ruling. The Court further determined that there was no competent evidence in the record to support a finding that the restrictions did not substantially impede council members in discharging their duties.

In an impassioned conclusion, the Court wrote:

History teaches that opaque decision-making destroys trust; recent history involving police body cameras emphasizes this risk. Nearly every party here sought transparency. Both the arrested individuals and the police officers recorded their actions. The City Council sought to answer questions and explain the City’s response by publicly discussing the facts behind their decisions. And the officers themselves hoped to clear their names by urging the release of all of the body camera videos. Yet, with no explanation, the trial court halted this process, leaving the people of Greensboro in the dark for more than six years.

In the end, the Court vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals and remanded the matter to the trial court for a new hearing on the motion to modify.

The concurrence. Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, wrote a separate opinion concurring in the result only. The concurring justices reasoned that though G.S. 132-1.4(g) does not require the trial court to make findings of fact, the record below did not reveal the basis for denying the motion. This paucity of explanation prevented the Court from determining whether the ruling was arbitrary. For this reason, the concurring justices concluded that the matter should be remanded to the trial court for clarification.

The takeaway. The trial court’s initial restricted release order in the Greensboro case recorded its evaluation of the statutory standards in G.S. 132-1.4A(g). The trial court determined while release “is necessary to advance a compelling public interest,” release also “may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person,” and  “would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice,” and that “[c]onfidentiality is necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.” Thus, the trial court concluded that it was appropriate to place restrictions on the release. Had the City appealed from this order, it strikes me as unlikely that an appellate court would have found an abuse of discretion – assuming that evidence in the record supported the findings.

Where the trial court erred was in failing to apply these or other relevant criteria to the City’s request to modify the restrictions. This failure was particularly acute given the City’s articulation of how the restrictions impeded council members’ duties to answer to their constituencies and to oversee Greensboro’s governance – which arguably was the compelling public interest that justified release in the first place. While G.S. 132-1.4A(g) permits a court to place any conditions or restrictions on the release of a record that the court “in its discretion, deems appropriate,” In re Custodial Law Enforcement Recording suggests that some reasoned ground for a condition or restriction should appear in the record or be articulated by the court. Moreover, a trial court ordering restricted disclosure should be careful to reevaluate circumstances if confronted with a motion to modify and should ensure that the record and/or written order reflects that evaluation and the rationale for the court’s ruling.