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Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office v. Wereschagin

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 702 and 980 CD 2020

Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

Clients: Mike Wereschagin, The Caucus

Principal Brief Filed: Jan. 4, 2021

Background: As part of his reporting on a surveillance camera system installed in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mike Wereschagin, a reporter for investigative publication The Caucus, submitted a public records request to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office in July 2019 seeking information about the surveillance system’s security against cyber attacks.

While the District Attorney’s Office produced some records about the cost of the cameras, it withheld other information about their physical location and other non-location information, including technical information about the cameras and information revealing the identity of any outside contractors hired to monitor the surveillance system. The District Attorney’s Office argued that such information was properly withheld under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law because it “would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or infrastructure.”

Wereschagin appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the agency responsible for handling public records appeals. The OOR agreed that the District Attorney’s Office properly withheld the requested location information, but it rejected the argument that the District Attorney’s Office could withhold non-location information.

A separate-but-related public records request submitted by Wereschagin in September 2019 sought additional information about the surveillance system, including email correspondence between the District Attorney’s Office and an IT contractor. Again, the District Attorney’s Office released some records but withheld others, prompting Wereschagin to appeal to the OOR. The OOR granted the reporter’s appeal, finding that the District Attorney’s Office had “not demonstrated that the identity of the IT contractor may be withheld.”

The District Attorney’s Office appealed both of the OOR’s final determinations to the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, and the two appeals were consolidated into one case. The court sided with the District Attorney’s Office’s arguments about withholding the non-location information.

On behalf of Wereschagin and The Caucus, attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, urging the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling. The reporter’s attorneys argue, among other things, that the lower court erred in finding that the District Attorney’s Office had shown that disclosure of non-location information would be reasonably likely to threaten public safety or infrastructure security.

Quote: “Mr. Wereschagin’s reporting is on a topic of significant public interest — the District Attorney’s Office’s administration of a large-scale public surveillance system. This system is publicly funded, and it impacts the lives of citizens throughout Allegheny County and beyond. The release of the records sought in the RTKL requests would allow the public to assess any existing vulnerabilities in the surveillance system and to otherwise oversee the system’s administration.”

Co-counsel: First Amendment Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law

Filings:

2021-01-04: Principal brief

2021-01-04: Exhibit A