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The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office’s appeal in a case examining whether the public can access videos recorded by police dashboard cameras.

In a 2-1 unpublished decision released in August, the Appellate Division said a police dashcam could be considered a public record, available for release. However, the appeals court left open the question of whether documents stemming from the recording could also be released.

The majority in Ganzweig v. Township of Lakewood largely affirmed a decision from October 2016 by Ocean County Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso, who ruled the footage does not fall within the list of exemptions in the Open Public Records Act that allows government officials to keep certain records from public view.

The court said the case should be remanded to determine whether the plaintiff seeking the dashcam recordings, Shabsi Ganzweig, should be allowed access to reports written about the episode in question, and whether she was entitled to counsel fees.

Appellate Division Judges Ellen Koblitz and Thomas Sumners Jr. said lower courts are still waiting for the state Supreme Court to determine whether reports and documents related to specific dashcam videos are records that are required to be kept by law, and thus subject to OPRA.

Appellate Division Judge Susan Reisner, in a partial dissent, said such records should not be open to public view since there are no statutes or state government directives requiring them to be kept.

In this case, Ganzweig sought footage taken from the dashcam of a Lakewood police officer who was charged with official misconduct following a traffic stop—from which he charged a driver and passenger with drug-related offenses that were later dropped.

Grasso agreed that the dashcam video should be made public.

“OPRA manifests the state’s public policy of transparency in government,” Grasso said. “The court finds that the contemporaneous recording of a traffic stop by a police dash cam that was required to be maintained and activated is not exempt.”

Koblitz and Sumners largely agreed in their majority ruling.

“It could be argued that the public’s legitimate interest in how its police officers conduct themselves constitutes a ‘particular interest’ in that information, well beyond that of idle curiosity, requiring disclosure under the common law,” they said. “Rather than militate towards secrecy, ‘the public interest’ in an investigation into police malfeasance may well support disclosure.”

The majority noted that the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office issued a press release about the incident, which may impact how much information may be ordered to be made public under OPRA.

In remanding, the majority said a trial judge should also review an award of $22,000 in counsel fees to Ganzweig and her attorney, Clinton solo Walter Luers.

Luers, reached by phone after the Supreme Court granted prosecutors’ petition for certification, said the court will have to determine whether dashcam videos and subsequent reports are documents that, under OPRA’s guidelines, are required to be kept “by law,” since Lakewood, at the time, had issued only a directive that all traffic stops be recorded.

The case, he said, “presents an important question” as to whether a local police department can enforce its own interpretation of OPRA.

Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment since the case remains under adjudication.

 

Michael Booth

Trenton Bureau Chief New Jersey Law Journal American Lawyer Media mbooth@alm.com Twitter: @mboothnjlj

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