State of Rhode Island
OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
150 South Main Street- Providence, Rl 02903
(401) 274-4400 www.riag.ri.gov
Peter F. Neronha
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VIA USPS AND EMAIL ONLY
March 22, 2023
Allen J. Hanson
Diane Daigle, Esq.
Deputy Chief Legal Counsel
Department of Corrections
Re: Hanson v. Rhode Island Department of Corrections
Dear Mr. Hanson and Attorney Daigle:
We have completed our investigation into the Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) Complaint filed by Mr. Allen J. Hanson (“Complainant”) against the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (“RIDOC”). For the reasons set forth herein, we find that the RIDOC did not violate the APRA.
The Complainant submitted an APRA request to RIDOC seeking “CCTV footage of 9/22/22 maximum security visiting room between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. full video of wedding religious ceremony on CD.” The RIDOC denied Complainant’s request pursuant to the following exemptions:
1) R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(i)(b), which exempts “[p]ersonnel and other personal individually identifiable records otherwise deemed confidential by federal or state law or regulation, or the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;”
2) R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(A)(II)(D)(a), exempting “[a]ll records maintained by law enforcement agencies for criminal law enforcement and all records relating to the detection and investigation of crime, including those maintained on any individual or compiled in the course of a criminal investigation by any law enforcement agency” to the extent that disclosure “(c) [c]ould reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; *** (e) [w]ould disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions;”
3) R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(II)(f), which exempts “[s]cientific and technological secrets and the security plans of military and law enforcement agencies, the disclosure of which would endanger the public welfare and security;” and
4) R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(P), which exempts “[a]ll investigatory records of public bodies, with the exception of law enforcement agencies, pertaining to possible violations of statute, rule, or regulation other than records of final actions taken, provided that all records prior to formal notification of violations or noncompliance shall not be deemed to be public.”
Dissatisfied with RIDOC’s response, the Complainant filed the Complaint with this Office alleging “the prison is violating my rights to public records” by denying the request for the CCTV footage.
Deputy Chief Legal Counsel, Diane Daigle, Esquire, submitted a substantive response on behalf of RIDOC in affidavit form. RIDOC attests that “CCTV footage is the security camera system that the RIDOC uses in its facilities and buildings.” RIDOC argues that disclosure of the requested footage would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy that no amount of redaction could cure” and “that the privacy rights of the individual outweighed the right to public disclosure.” RIDOC maintains that the Complainant “sought video pertaining to another inmate and other individuals, presumably the other inmate’s family and/or friends, which by the nature of being a video showed their likenesses.” Additionally, RIDOC reiterates its invocation of exemptions R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 38-2-2(4)(D)(c)-(e), (4)(F) and (4)(P). RIDOC also cites to two Washington Court of Appeals cases for the proposition that prison surveillance footage is not public under the APRA or the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the federal equivalent of the APRA. See Fischer v. Washington State Dep't of Corr., 254 P.3d 824 (2011) (holding surveillance video recordings made by specific cameras in the prison at the time of alleged assault on prisoner by a fellow prisoner were non-public); see also Gronquist v. State, 313 P.3d 416, 421 (2013) (holding surveillance video recordings of a specific unit within the prison were properly withheld by the DOC).
At this Office’s request, the RIDOC provided a copy of the withheld CCTV footage for our in camera review.
We acknowledge Complainant’s rebuttal wherein he argues, inter alia, that “the public has a right to CCTV footage in this case” because the subjects of the “wedding video” want to see it.
When we examine an APRA complaint, our authority is to determine whether a violation of the APRA has occurred. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8. In doing so, we must begin with the plain language of the APRA and relevant caselaw interpreting this statute.
The APRA states that, unless exempt, all records maintained by a public body shall be public records and every person shall have the right to inspect and/or to copy such records. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(a). The APRA exempts from disclosure “[p]ersonnel and other personal individually identifiable records otherwise deemed confidential by federal or state law or regulation, or the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552 et seq.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b). The plain language of this provision contemplates a “balancing test” whereby the public interest in disclosure is weighed against any privacy interest. Consequently, we must consider the “public interest” versus the “privacy interest” to determine whether the disclosure of the requested records, in whole or in part, “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b).
In the context of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the United States Supreme Court has explained that the right to access public records “focuses on the citizens' right to be informed about ‘what their government is up to.’ Official information that sheds light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties falls squarely within that statutory purpose.” United States Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 773 (1989).
We begin by considering the privacy interests of the individuals who appear in the requested CCTV footage. Based on our in camera review, the withheld CCTV footage depicts a recording of a wedding or commitment ceremony within the maximum security prison involving numerous private, non-incarcerated individuals (including what appear to be minor children) as well as an inmate and RIDOC employees. We find that even though the video was taken in a visiting room of the maximum security facility, the number of attendees were limited and the participants in what is typically a private event have at least some privacy interest in the video footage depicting themselves. See Prison Legal News v. Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, 628 F.3d 1243, 1249 (10th Cir. 2011) (recognizing that video footage implicates greater privacy interests than photographs).
Turning now to the public interest, although normally a person making an APRA request need not provide a reason for the request, see R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(j), the request at issue here implicates specific individuals’ privacy interests. Accordingly, “disclosure is only required if the public interest in disclosure outweighs those privacy interests.” See Burke v. City of Warwick, PR 22-03.
Here, the Complainant has not identified any public interest in the requested records and has not asserted that disclosure would shed light on the RIDOC’s operations. Neither do we discern an apparent public interest in disclosure of the CCTV footage, as recognized in the APRA. The Complainant’s sole argument is that the footage is “something good” and that the subjects involved, including another inmate and their family, want to view it. Under the APRA, however, our sole function is to determine whether the requested document should be made available to the public at-large, not specific persons who assert a heightened personal interest in a record. (It should be noted that the Complainant does not assert a heightened interest in the requested record, but allegedly is seeking the record for someone who contends they may have a heightened interest in the requested record). For this reason, Complainant’s relationship to any particular person identified in the requested records and personal interest in obtaining the records cannot factor into our analysis. See, e.g., Gardiner v. Rhode Island Department of Public Safety, PR 19-08; see also Bernard v. Vose, 730 A.2d 30 (R.I. 1999) (privacy interest in inmate’s own parole file).
Furthermore, the implicated privacy interests cannot be effectively quelled by redaction since the requested records relate to a specific and identifiable inmate and event. See Pawtucket Teachers Alliance v. Brady, 556 A.2d 556, 559 (R.I. 1989) (“the report at issue in the present case specifically relates to the job performance of a single readily identifiable individual. Even if all references to proper names were deleted, the principal’s identity would still be abundantly clear from the entire context of the report.”).
Accordingly, we conclude that the privacy interests implicated by disclosing the footage outweighs any public interest in the same, and that the RIDOC did not violate the APRA by withholding the requested records.
Having concluded that RIDOC could have withheld the requested video footage pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(i)(b), we need not also consider whether the additional exemptions cited by RIDOC also apply, however, we note that the format of the CCTV footage would disclose where RIDOC security cameras are placed within the maximum security visiting room and the scope of coverage of these cameras, which could compromise the safety and security of the facility. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(F).
Although this Office has found no violation, nothing within the APRA prohibits an individual or entity from instituting an action for injunctive or declaratory relief in Superior Court as provided in the APRA. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). Please be advised that we are closing this file as of the date of this letter.
We thank you for your interest in keeping government open and accountable to the public.
PETER F. NERONHA
By: /s/ Kayla E. O’Rourke
Kayla E. O’Rourke, Esquire
/s/ Adam D. Roach
Adam D. Roach, Special Assistant Attorney General
 It is undisputed that the Complainant was not a participant in the “wedding religious ceremony” for which he seeks the CCTV footage.
 We understand RIDOC’s citation to be a clerical error as the correct citation for the exemption RIDOC references is R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(D).
 We understand RIDOC’s citation to be a clerical error as the correct citation for the exemption RIDOC references is R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(F).
 In his rebuttal, Complainant also alleges that he is being retaliated against by RIDOC staff for seeking the subject records. Respectfully, this is outside the scope of this Office’s authority under the APRA and will not be investigated. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8.
 We reference FOIA caselaw because the Rhode Island Supreme Court has made clear that “[b]ecause APRA generally mirrors the Freedom of Information Act * * * we find federal case law helpful in interpreting our open record law.” Pawtucket Teachers Alliance v. Brady, 556 A.2d 556, 558 n.3 (R.I. 1989).