Crime & Courts

In body camera case, appeals court finds that Greensboro City Council gag order was OK

Months after Charlotte City Council members watched a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police body camera video prior to its public release, the North Carolina Court of Appeals waded into the controversy over local government officials’ rights to the videos.

The court agreed with a Guilford County Superior Court judge in its opinion Tuesday, finding that trial courts can grant council members the right to watch body camera footage and deny their right to talk about the videos publicly.

The case, which involves the Greensboro City Council, began in early 2018, when the City of Greensboro moved to lift a gag order on council members and allow them to discuss a body camera video with constituents.

The motion failed in trial court, which led to the appeal. Greensboro attorney Patrick Kane, who represents the city council, refused Wednesday to say whether the city plans to appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.

City council members’ access to police body camera videos became an issue in Charlotte this spring, after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Danquirs Franklin at a northwest Charlotte Burger King.

In response to reporters’ petitions for the release of body camera video, a Mecklenburg County judge approved the release of two minutes and 20 seconds of video showing the moments when Franklin was shot. The judge, Donnie Hoover, said the video could be released publicly on April 15.

But the Charlotte City Council watched an 11-minute video — more footage than CMPD had turned over to the judge for review — before the release time the judge had set.

City attorney Patrick Baker has said the law is not clear about whether council members could watch the video without specific permission from a judge.

He said Tuesday that he’s still waiting for state legislators to provide more detail about city officials’ rights in situations like these.

“It would be great if that could be clarified,” he said. “We may want to look at videos for other reasons (beyond police shootings).”

At least one bill pending in the legislature could make the situation clearer. Rep. John Faircloth, a Guilford County Republican, proposed changes that would allow council members to watch videos in closed session but require them to sign confidentiality agreements. Faircloth helped write the 2016 state law that means all requests for body camera footage have to be heard before a judge.

The circumstances in the Greensboro case don’t have a great deal of overlap with what’s happened in Charlotte, Baker said. He noted that the appeals court appears willing to defer to the legislature and lower courts’ decisions about how to handle the videos.

As a stopgap measure, Baker said he’ll consider ensuring that city council members have their own legal representation in future body camera hearings. That way, council members’ ability to watch the videos could be written into the judge’s release order, Baker said, which would alleviate some uncertainty.

The Observer has several petitions for police video pending as of Wednesday, including one that asks for more video from the Franklin shooting.

Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.