Jail cameras: A gross violation of personal privacy or a necessary tool that keeps inmates and corrections officers safe?
That was the question posed to a federal jury Monday as a civil lawsuit against the city of Puyallup got underway in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Twelve people — 11 women and a man — contend the use of security cameras in the city jail’s holding cells violated their constitutional right to privacy when they were booked for DUI in the years leading up to 2013.
They sued last year, seeking undisclosed monetary damages.
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Julie Kays, told jurors during her opening statement that the cameras recorded her clients changing clothes or using the toilet, a clear violation of their privacy.
“The constitution does not evaporate when you enter the city jail,” Kays said.
She went on to say her clients experienced “humiliation, shame and shock” when they later learned some of their most intimate acts had been video recorded, more so when they were told the recordings were considered public records that could be released to anyone who asked.
Defense attorney Richard Jolley countered during his opening statement that the cameras are a legitimate tool that help keep inmates safe and protect correctional officers from unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing.
“Ironically, the cameras protect the city from the kind of claims we have here,” Jolley said.
He blamed the controversy on Seattle attorney James Egan, who learned about the holding cell cameras three years ago and “bombarded the city with public records requests” for copies of videos even though he didn’t represent any of the people recorded.
The city resisted for as long as it could but finally turned nearly 3,000 hours of videos over to Egan to avoid statutory penalties and attorney’s fees attached for withholding public records, Jolley said.
“As far as who’s at fault here, the evidence is going to repeatedly point not to the jail, but to Mr. Egan,” the defense attorney said.
The trial could be a donnybrook if the opening statements are any indication.
Kays gave jurors a taste of what’s to come by showing them selected photographs taken from the videos. They photos showed her clients using the toilet or in various stages of undress.
“For over a decade, the city was creating a record of those intimate and private acts,” she said. “Do you really need to create a permanent record of somebody naked or going to the bathroom?”
Kays portrayed Egan as a whistleblower, saying he learned of the city’s practice of video recording jail inmates and decided to fight to get the practice stopped.
The city rebuffed him at nearly every turn, she said. Egan finally contacted her firm and the media to take the story public, Kays said.
The 12 plaintiffs are expected to testify in the trial, as is Egan, she said, because they decided the public “needs to know what goes on in the Puyallup jail.”
Kays also pointed out that the city changed its policies regarding video recording inside the jail after the lawsuit was filed. People no longer are video recorded while changing clothes or going to the bathroom, she said.
Jolley had a different take on Egan’s actions.
He said the lawyer launched “a massive solicitation and advertising campaign” to recruit people who’d been jailed in Puyallup for DUI and then used them and the videos to try to extort $800,000 out of the city.
City attorney Kevin Yamamoto is expected to testify about Egan’s attempts to persuade the city to pay up to avoid embarrassment, Jolley said
The defense attorney accused Egan of manipulating the state’s Public Records Act and of sensationalizing what occurred in an attempt to profit.
Jolley also said the plaintiffs, to a person, had blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit — some more than two times the limit — when they were booked into the jail, and several made statements during pretrial depositions that are contradicted by the “smoking gun” of the video evidence.
“You will see example after example of this kind of contrast between what the plaintiffs say and what the evidence actually shows,” Jolley said.
The trial, which is being presided over by Judge Robert Bryan, is expected to last through Christmas.