A New Jersey appeals court on June 30 ruled that police video recordings taken from dashboard cameras are documents that must be released under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
In a divided ruling, the two-judge Appellate Division majority said the recordings should not be shielded under the privilege for ongoing criminal investigations.
Appellate Division Judge John Kennedy, joined by Judge Jose Fuentes, affirmed a decision by Ocean County Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso to make public the Barnegat Police Department dash cam recording at the request of open-government activist John Paff.
Appellate Division Judge Robert Gilson dissented, saying the recordings should be considered records of criminal investigations.
The divided ruling in a published decision means the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, or the state, which participated as amicus, is guaranteed a review by the state Supreme Court.
“OPRA expresses the state’s public policy favoring transparency in government and disclosure of public documents,” Kennedy wrote for the majority in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. “The purpose of OPRA is to maximize public knowledge about public affairs in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evil inherent in a secluded process,” he said, quoting the state Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Times of Trenton v. Lafayette Yards.
Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Samuel Marzarella, who argued against releasing the recordings, did not return a telephone call. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.
The ruling involves an incident that occurred on Jan. 29, 2014, when a Tuckerton police officer attempted to stop a driver. The stop led to a chase that eventually ended in Barnegat. The driver was charged with eluding, but the Tuckerton officer, in an incident that was captured on the Barnegat cameras, also was charged with assault and misuse of a police dog.
The names of the driver and the Tuckerton police officer were not released in the ruling.
Paff, who often pursues public-records cases throughout the state, moved to have the recordings made public. The driver objected, citing privacy reasons.
Grasso ruled that the recordings were public records and should be released.
Kennedy said the record was clear that the recordings were made automatically when the Barnegat officers turned on their overhead lights and were not contemplated as being part of a criminal investigation.
Alexander Shalom, senior counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which participated as an amicus, said the ruling is an important one in the ongoing national dialogue about police and allegations of excessive force.
“There is an important policy goal behind the release of police video camera recordings,” Shalom said.
Kennedy rejected the notion that disclosure would cause any harm. “The information contained relates to a motor vehicle stop that took place in a public setting,” Kennedy said. “[T]here is no potential harm in any subsequent disclosure of the recordings.”
Paff’s attorney, Montclair solo Richard Gutman, welcomed the ruling.
“There is a national debate about police use of force,” Gutman said. “This decision allows the public to see the videos of police misconduct.”
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