A Clark County judge ruled Monday in favor of releasing jail surveillance footage used in an investigation of an inmate killed while being restrained by corrections deputies in 2015.
During an evidentiary hearing Monday, Clark County Superior Court Judge Bernard Veljacic heard arguments from both sides of a public records lawsuit filed by the estate of Mycheal J. Lynch.
The case centered around security camera footage from three of nine cameras that are in the jail’s medical unit, where Lynch was being held and where the altercation took place.
Lynch, 32, was booked March 20, 2015, following his arrest on suspicion of intoxicated driving, reckless driving and hit-and-run against an unattended vehicle. The prosecutor’s office said Lynch had a large rash on his chest when he was admitted, and he was placed in the jail’s medical unit.
A few hours after he was booked, Lynch called for help, according to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, and corrections staff came to his cell. When they tried moving him to another part of the jail, he resisted, and during the struggle he experienced a medical emergency, the sheriff’s office said. Lynch was taken to a hospital and died two days later.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide, meaning it resulted from another person’s deliberate action. The ruling does not make any judgments about criminal culpability.
The agency determined Lynch died of brain damage due to lack of oxygen. An autopsy found that an irregular heartbeat experienced during the struggle, coupled with methamphetamine intoxication, was the cause of death.
In November 2015, Lynch’s family filed a tort claim against the county arguing that the jail was negligent in his death, and claimed damages of at least $4 million. A lawsuit has not yet been filed.
The Vancouver Police Department investigated the death, and Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, in his review of the incident, said in written findings that the corrections staff had acted lawfully.
In that review, Golik made mention of videos that he said don’t show deputies over-aggressively piling on or “hitting or choking” Lynch. Instead, they show them using the force necessary to hold him down, Golik wrote.
Greg Ferguson and Jack Green, attorneys representing the Lynch family, filed a public records request for the footage but the county denied the request, claiming that the record was exempt as it is “essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy,” according to court documents filed in the case.
Ferguson and Green argued that the Legislature amended those exemptions in August 2016, finding that “technological developments present opportunities for additional truth-finding, transparency, and accountability in interactions between law enforcement or corrections officers and the public,” the complaint in the case states.
At Monday’s hearing, Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop testified as an expert witness and said that inmates are often looking for blind spots on the cameras and that releasing the footage to the public would compromise jail security.
“If people know where our blind spots are, if people know our limitations, it gives them an advantage over us,” Bishop said.
Both Bishop and John Morris Jones, the security systems expert called to testify by Green and Ferguson, said that viewing footage from three cameras does not show the blind spots of the security system — that would require a review of all nine surveillance cameras.
Ultimately, the county shouldered the burden to prove that not releasing the requested footage was essential to law enforcement and that releasing it would create a security risk. After the 90-minute hearing, Veljacic found that hadn’t been proven, though he admitted releasing the videos wasn’t his preference.
“I don’t like it, but I don’t get to make decisions based on what I personally like,” Veljacic said.
Ferguson and Green are scheduled to file findings of fact and conclusions of law, a written memo of Veljacic’s ruling, on Aug. 22. Once Veljacic has issued a ruling, the county has 30 days to file an appeal.
After the ruling, Bishop said: “I’m disappointed the court did not give more weight to our security and safety concerns of inmates housed in our jails, the staff working in the jails and the visitor to the jails. However, I do understand the public’s right to know and will be exploring our options going forward.”
Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Richardson said Monday it was too early to know if the county would appeal.
Once the footage is obtained by the Lynch family’s attorneys, they said they plan to move forward with the wrongful death lawsuit.
Green said that the only information about Lynch’s death so far has been presented by law enforcement.
“Any time you get a version of events from an agency there’s going to be some sort of inherent bias. The video presents the one truly unbiased view of what happened because it is simply recording the events,” he said. “For over two years the family has wanted at least the opportunity to see what happened to Mycheal and now we’re going to have that opportunity, should they choose to view it.”
Ferguson and Green also said that the case has broader implications about policing the police.
“Transparency and accountability is what this case is about,” Ferguson said. “We’re doing this because we need to know what happened, the family needs to know what happened and the public needs to know what happened.”