As reported by nj.com, the New Jersey Supreme Court prohibited law enforcement officers from destroying the notes they take while interviewing witnesses, victims and suspects, saying defense attorneys should be allowed to view them so they can challenge official police reports.
The decision, by a divided court, addresses the decades-old struggle in New Jersey courtrooms of defense attorneys looking for possible errors, omissions or inconsistencies that could help their clients. When asked for their notes, officers often say it’s their department’s policy to destroy them once the official report is written. The ruling is the latest of a number of decisions critical of cops’ note-taking procedures. But for the first time, the court imposes sanctions and includes notes about officers’ observations at a crime scene as part of the list of documents that cannot be destroyed.
“We need not take much time to state, once more, that law enforcement officers may not destroy contemporaneous notes of interviews and observations at the scene of a crime after producing their final reports,” temporary justice Edwin Stern wrote more the majority. “Logically, because an officer’s notes may be of aid to the defense, the time has come to join other states that require the imposition of ‘an appropriate sanction’ whenever an officer’s written notes are not preserved.”
The ruling said trial court judges will be able to instruct jurors that the destruction of notes by a police officer can be a factor in determining whether he or she is telling the truth.
The Supreme Court gave the state Attorney General’s Office 30 days to inform local law enforcement officers and county prosecutors about the requirement. Cranford Police Chief Eric Mason, president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said the requirement could be a state mandate that will cost local departments. “On its face, this type of practice will require additional administrative review internally at a time when police departments are being asked to do more with less with deep cuts in personnel,” Mason said.
Jon Shane, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted that New York City uses special notebooks that create duplicate copies of notes and require a supervisor’s signature as a protection against tampering. Shane also noted that, “What you’re talking about is accountability. That’s what the Supreme Court is imposing on policing.”
The ruling grew out of an appeal by a man, identified in court papers as W.B., who was convicted of sexually assaulting his cousin, who later recanted her allegation. By a 4-3 margin, the Supreme Court upheld W.B.’s conviction.