After Andrew Brown, Jr. was shot and killed in Elizabeth City in April 2021 by law enforcement officers who were attempting to serve arrest and search warrants on him, several media entities attempted to obtain law enforcement agency recordings of the events. The companies sought the release of those recordings from the superior court pursuant to G.S. 132-1.4A(g) and filed their request six days after the shooting using a form petition created by the Administrative Office of the Courts, AOC-CV-270. A superior court judge denied the request based on his conclusion that release would create a serious threat to the fair and orderly administration of justice and that there was a need to protect an active internal or criminal investigation. After the Pasquotank County district attorney announced that he would not seek charges related to the incident, the companies filed another petition on form AOC-CV-270 requesting release of the recordings. A different superior court judge dismissed this later petition on the basis that the petitioners were required to file a regular civil action to obtain the release of recordings under G.S. 132-1.4A(g). The media companies appealed, and, in an opinion published last week, the Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court’s ruling. See In re Custodial Law Enforcement Agency Recordings, No. COA22-446, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2023).
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.
North Carolina’s law governing the disclosure and release of body-worn camera footage took center stage last spring following the shooting of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City. John Rubin wrote here about litigation on that issue, noting that one prominent feature of the statutory scheme was that determining matters of disclosure and release “takes time.” This session, the General Assembly amended the rules governing disclosure of recordings that depict death or serious bodily injury to require (1) that a court determine whether a recording be disclosed; and (2) that the court make such a determination within seven business days of the filing of a disclosure petition. This post will review those changes.