Moab is returning the nearly $3,000 in fees the city collected from multiple media organizations to release body camera footage of officers pulling over Gabby Petito and her fiance Brian Laundrie outside of Arches National Park.
The footage shows officers talking to the couple after a reported domestic problem on Aug. 12, about a month before Petito was reported missing and later found dead.
The thousands of dollars in fees that Moab police charged in exchange for the footage — which made national headlines upon its release and continues to appear in news coverage — amounted to about three times what the department had expected to collect this fiscal year in records fee revenue, according to a city budget document.
The move to refund the fees comes after The Salt Lake Tribune asked for an explanation of the costs, which appeared to violate Utah law. Agencies can only charge for “actual costs of providing a record,” public records law states.
“Even if one person were charged a fee,” city spokesperson Lisa Church said, “once that document is created, everybody else should not have been charged.”
Breakdown of fees
The department charged $98 to 30 entities — mostly news organizations — that requested the footage, according to a document The Tribune obtained through an open records request. Those fees totaled $2,940.
A city budget document shows that in fiscal year 2021, Moab police expected to receive $1,000 in records fees, and budgeted that same amount for fiscal year 2022.
The Moab police stop depicted in the footage followed a 911 call from a witness, who reported seeing the couple arguing near their camper van. Officers spoke with the witness as well as Petito and Laundrie, according to a report, and decided to separate the couple for the evening so they could “relax their emotions.”
Petito was reported missing about a month later and found dead on Sept. 19 near the edge of Grand Teton National Park. Forensic pathologists concluded that she had been strangled to death about three or four weeks earlier.
Laudrie was considered a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance. He disappeared himself days before her body was found, and authorities in Florida last week identified human remains found in a Florida nature preserve as those of Laundrie.
An outside agency is investigating how Moab police handled the stop, which has since been scrutinized. Moab Police Chief Bret Edge took a leave of absence days after the agency announced the investigation.
Church declined to categorize the decision to charge $98 per video release as a mistake. But she acknowledged that it fell outside the city’s normal fee schedule and that Moab generally tries to fulfill records requests from media organizations for free.
She noted that the department released a second video from the same stop days later for no charge.
‘It’s going to be made right’
When The Tribune initially requested body camera footage from Moab on Sept. 16, a representative responded through an online portal saying that the newspaper would need to pay a $98 video processing fee “for review and redaction of protected information involved in the video.”
But records show Moab had already charged 23 other organizations the same processing fee for the footage, suggesting that it had already been reviewed and redacted it for release.
Utah law states that a government agency “may charge a reasonable fee to cover the governmental entity’s actual cost of providing a record.” It also encourages government entities to release the record without charge to members of the media who are using the documents for news stories.
A Moab representative denied The Tribune’s request for a fee waiver for the Sept. 16 open records request, stating that a waiver was “not applicable.” The Tribune received the footage after paying the fee under protest, given the urgency of the then-missing person case, Lauren Gustus, executive editor of The Tribune, said.
Church said she did not know how the department arrived at the $98 fee amount per request or why The Tribune’s request for a fee waiver was denied.
“It’s going to be made right,” Church said, “The point of GRAMA requests is it is public information the public is entitled to, and certainly media organizations are entitled to it. We’ll get it figured out and get the refunds processed.” (GRAMA refers to the Government Records Access and Management Act).
Gustus said Moab’s decision to refund the money was the right one. She noted that The Tribune has spent considerable money on other public records requests.
“We are grateful to our subscribers for their support, because it enables us to pursue these documents,” she said in a statement.
Jeff Hunt, a First Amendment and media law attorney based in Utah, told The Tribune that as more departments have begun housing digital audio and video files, the cost to provide such records has significantly declined.
Hunt said it is hard to imagine the actual cost of locating a video that had already been reviewed, then uploading it to an email, would total nearly $100. He commended Moab for intending to refund the fees, which seemed “unusual and excessive.”
“At a time when news organizations are under immense cost pressure, and we have publications, newspapers, folding all around the country and in Utah, it’s important to be mindful of those costs,” Hunt said, “because you can’t get information and disseminate to the public if the cost is prohibitive.”
Church said the city intends to refund the fees as early as next week.