The city charged news organisations $98 for the video
The city of Moab, Utah is returning almost $3,000 in fees it charged several media organisations for the release of body camera footage depicting a police encounter with Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie.
In the footage, Moab police officers respond to a domestic violence call claiming Mr Laundrie had hit Ms Petito, and that Ms Petito had scratched Mr Laundrie. The officers talk to the couple about the fight before suggesting they separate for the night to cool down. The footage was captured on 12 August, and nearly a month later Ms Petito was reported missing.
Police body camera footage – like police records and even police scanners – are public records in the US. While any member of the public can request these records – including journalists – some states allow the departments tasked with preparing the records to charge a fee for the work and materials needed to fulfil the request.
In states that do charge fees, there are generally rules dictating how much money an office can reasonably charge for fulfilling public records requests. In Utah, for example, a public office can only charge someone requesting a record the “actual costs of providing a record.”
Because of that stipulation, the Salt Lake Tribune began questioning why the city managed to make almost three times what it expected to in records fees just by charging local, national and international media outlets for the footage.
According to the department, it charged $98 to 30 groups, mostly news organisations, who requested the footage, totalling $2,940.
Lisa Church, a spokesperson for the city, pointed out that once the video had been prepared for one request, no other entity should have been charged, as the “actual cost of providing a record” would be nothing.
“Even if one person were charged a fee once that document is created, everybody else should not have been charged,” she said.
Ms Church admitted that charging a group $98 for a video was outside of the city’s normal records fee schedule, and claimed that the city normally tries to fulfil media requests for free. She pointed to a second body camera video that was released from the same incident and noted that it had been released to the public for free.
She claimed she did not know how the department that charged the organisations $98 for video access calculated that cost.
“It’s going to be made right,” Ms Church said, “The point of GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) requests is it is public information the public is entitled to, and certainly media organizations are entitled to it. We’ll get it figured out and get the refunds processed.”
Records fees are a contentious subject in the world of public records. On one hand, compiling records for requests is a time consuming and sometimes labor intensive process that can disrupt operations at smaller government offices. On the other hand, public records are not truly public if someone cannot access them simply because they don’t have enough money to pay a fee.
As such, the matter has been left to individual states to determine for themselves.