In camera inspection of records

February 2007
By Judge John Wittmayer, Multnomah County Circuit Court

Most of us have from time to time used or heard the phrase "in camera inspection." But what does it mean, when is it appropriate, and, more importantly, what are the procedures to get it accomplished?

My Black's Law Dictionary (revised fourth edition, 1968 - but Latin hasn't changed much since then, has it?) defines in camera as "in chambers; in private," or "when all spectators are excluded from the courtroom." When we use the phrase in connection with a request for inspection of records, it is almost always a request that the judge review the records in chambers and authorize disclosure of those portions of the records that are discoverable. Although these requests are most common in criminal cases, occasionally we receive these requests in civil and family law cases, as well.

In Multnomah County, use of the following procedure will smoothly accomplish this:

  1. A lawyer issues a subpoena for the records and the subpoena is served on the records custodian. The subpoena sets a date for compliance and directs that the records be delivered to the court file room.
  2. The records are received by court staff in the file room, and a blue slip is put into the court file, noting the source of the records and the quantity of records received, e.g. 1/4", one box, etc. Court staff makes an entry into OJIN and moves the records to an off-site storage facility.
  3. The lawyer who issued the subpoena monitors OJIN to see when the records have been received by the court. After the records have arrived, the lawyer schedules the hearing at which the lawyer will ask the judge to conduct the in camera inspection. (Note: use the regular procedures for scheduling this motion hearing, which are different in criminal cases than in civil and family law cases.)
  4. The lawyer who issued the subpoena orders the records from the file room. It takes 48 hours advance notice for court staff to retrieve the records from the court's off-site storage facility.
  5. On the day of the hearing, the records are available to the assigned judge's staff to retrieve from the file room because the lawyer who issued the subpoena told the file room not less than 48 hours earlier of the need for the records at the hearing.
  6. At the hearing, the lawyers tell the judge a little background about the case, and they tell the judge what they believe may be in the records that is discoverable; i.e., they tell the judge what to look for. The lawyers also need to tell the judge the date by which they need to receive any of the records that the judge believes are discoverable.
  7. The judge then reviews all the records in camera. Upon completion of the in camera records review, the judge advises the lawyers by letter, email or telephone call from the clerk if the judge believes any of the records are discoverable. If so, the judge's clerk makes copies of any discoverable records for each lawyer, with one additional set of the copied records marked as a court exhibit and filed under seal in the court file. Retaining a set of the disclosed records is for appellate review, if necessary.