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Thompson v. Cumberland County

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  1. Local Legal Initiative

Case Number: 2022-03057

Court: Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas

Clients: The Patriot-News/PennLive, Charles Thompson

Petition for Review Filed: April 6, 2022

Background: On Feb. 16, 2022, a North Middleton Township police officer fatally shot Roger Wayne Ellis after he refused to surrender to police officers when they arrived at his home to serve a warrant for his arrest. According to the Pennsylvania State Police, Ellis shot an officer during the incident, but it is unclear whether Ellis was heading toward the police or otherwise posed a threat to law enforcement immediately preceding his death.

More than a week after the fatal shooting, Patriot-News/PennLive reporter Charles Thompson requested police body camera and dashboard camera footage capturing the incident under Pennsylvania’s Act 22, a law passed in 2017 authorizing members of the public to request video or audio recordings created by law enforcement agencies.

The Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office denied the Act 22 request in March 2022. An assistant district attorney stated that the recordings sought by Thompson’s Act 22 request “contain[] information pertaining to an investigation, potential evidence in a criminal matter, and other confidential information. Reasonable redaction will not safeguard the information.” (A similar Act 22 request filed by one of Ellis’ siblings was also denied by the district attorney’s office.)

On behalf of Thompson and The Patriot-News/PennLive, Reporters Committee attorneys appealed the denial to the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County. The lawsuit argues that the requested footage cannot be considered exempt for investigative or evidentiary purposes because the district attorney has stated that there is no possibility of criminal prosecution of the police officer involved in the fatal shooting. In addition, there is no confidential information or victim information in the requested records rendering them exempt from disclosure.

Highlighting coverage the shooting has attracted locally and nationally, the lawsuit also argues that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the government’s interest in keeping the recordings secret.

Quote: “Releasing the police body camera footage in this case would not only help the community better understand the circumstances surrounding Mr. Ellis’s death at the hands of a police officer, but also shed light on what took place for Mr. Ellis’s family, who has also requested and been denied access to this footage,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, who is representing Thompson and The Patriot-News/PennLive. “Act 22 exists precisely to promote access to police body camera footage in service of strengthening public trust and accountability in law enforcement in Pennsylvania, and we urge the court to uphold that central promise of the law in this case.”

Related: This is the second Act 22 lawsuit Reporters Committee attorneys have litigated on behalf of journalists in Pennsylvania. In 2021, Burke, along with attorney Terry Mutchler of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, helped journalist Hurubie Meko obtain 16 hours of police bodycam footage showing protesters clash with law enforcement officers outside of the Lancaster City Bureau of Police in September 2020.

Filings:

2022-04-06: Petition for review

2022-04-26: Order scheduling hearing