MVARS, also known as dash cams, are video recording devices that are mounted on the dashboard of law enforcement vehicles. These cameras are forward facing and constantly recording. Recordings can be saved either by the officer pushing a button to initiate, or by turning on the emergency lights and sirens, triggering the system to automatically save. The saved recording will begin 30 seconds prior to activation during which time, there is no sound. Afterwards, sound picked up by the two microphones in the vehicle, placed under the hood of the vehicle and inside the vehicle, are recorded.
As of 2021, 66% of California Highway Patrol black and white vehicles were equipped with an in-car camera system. CHP vehicles for officers assigned to traffic safety are much more likely to be equipped with dash cams. According to attorney Jeff Hammerschmidt, “on DUI cases that our office handles, more than 95% of the patrol vehicles have dash cams.” The CHP plans to equip each patrol car with two cameras, one front facing to record officer- public interaction and one rear facing to record prisoner transport. This will not only provide an accurate account of events but will heighten transparency and accountability.
Under the California Public Records Act of 1968 (CPRA), the public has a right to access information, as such requests for footage from the MVARS can be made via the CHP’s Public Records Center. To obtain the footage, the individual will want to include the following information:
- A clear and specific description of the record;
- The date or dates of the record;
- The location where the incident occurred;
- The subject of the record;
- Any additional information that helps staff identify the record;
- The individual’s contact information to be notified when the request is ready.
Prompt access to records is required under Government Code §7922.535, however, although the CPRA mentions a 10-day period, this period is not a deadline for production of records. Under certain circumstances, records may be housed in a different location, requiring that the Department have reasonable time to review and inspect records before making them available. In some situations, footage can take weeks or even months to be made available. In other cases, a defense attorney may need to file a formal discovery motion and request a hearing to address the missing evidence.
The CPRA is the state equivalent of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Dash cams function much in the same manner as bodycams, typically used by local law enforcement agencies.