The City of Carrollton’s initial refusal to provide a copy of police dashcam footage to a local attorney has turned into a federal case complete with alleged First Amendment violations.
Attorney Stephen Le Brocq has accused the city, a local law firm and three city employees of retaliation and depriving him of his First Amendment rights.
Le Brocq filed the federal suit in June after the city refused to provide him with a video file of footage in a basic traffic stop case in which he represented a client who was cited for driving without a license.
In Carrollton, until Le Brocq made it an issue, requesters seeking video footage from the cameras in police vehicles were asked to bring in their own camera or phone and shoot the footage as it played back on a screen, Le Brocq said. The city told him that it lacked the technology to download a video file, a simple procedure that can be done on most laptops.
Le Brocq insisted the state’s discovery law required that he be given an actual copy of the file, and he filed a motion in municipal court seeking an order to clarify the law. The city quickly replied with some news: It had updated its technology and could now provide the video file.
Suspecting that no “upgrade” had ever been needed, Le Brocq sought the related invoices. The city then told him it would cost about $7,056 to retrieve the invoices. He filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, seeking to have the fee reduced or eliminated.
The instant upgrade ruse “is one of the oldest ones in the book,” said Joel White, a public records attorney in Houston and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
White said few people sue because of a records overcharge. “You can recover three times the amount charged,” he said. “But it’s not guaranteed and litigation is not free.”
In this case, that would be a separate action from Le Brocq’s federal case.
The Texas Monitor sent an email to City Attorney Meredith Ladd seeking an interview and asking why it would be so costly for the city to retrieve a few invoices. Ladd did not respond to the interview request.
Instead, Assistant City Manager Chrystal Davis sent an email naming a widely used software program the city uses in this instance and noting that the invoices are stored electronically but can be printed out. Carrollton was among several Texas cities that received a high mark in a Dallas newspaper study in 2015 for using the software.
During his battle with the city over the dashcam file, Le Brocq emailed city council members, seeking a meeting. In response, the Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin law firm, which had been retained by the city during the flap, sent Le Brocq a letter advising him to “cease and desist” from contacting council members.
Le Brocq said the notion that he is not allowed to contact public officials who have a stake in his quest for public records and other city procedures limits his right to expression under the First Amendment. He also suggested that non-attorneys or people less familiar with the law would easily be intimidated by the city’s tactics.
“What it could ultimately mean is that people seeking public records, and looking to have a conversation about it, would face some kind of legal obstacle to talk,” Le Brocq said. “They don’t want me to talk to them about the request. If I go there, will I be arrested?”
According to the Fanning law firm, Le Brocq’s action was improper because approaching the client of another lawyer if there is pending or contemplated litigation breaches legal ethics.
A representative of the firm did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Carrollton for years has waged expensive battles to keep from turning over records related to its police department, including dashcam footage.
A review of state attorney general letter rulings shows the city has often prevailed on the grounds that release of the information would impede investigation of a crime. The city has based many of its referrals to the AG on details in requested material, such as social security numbers that could easily be redacted and the remaining material released.
In other cases, the city lost the argument. In 2016, the city sought to withhold dashcam footage from a person who’d been arrested for alleged drunk driving. The AG required the city to hand it over.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].