As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, 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 In a 2-1 unpublished decision released in August, the Appellate Division said a police dashcam could be considered a public record, available for release.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 Court left open the question of whether documents stemming from the recording could also be released.
The Appellate Division’s decision largely affirmed the underlying trial court, which ruled the footage does not fall within the list of exemptions in the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) that allows government officials to keep certain records from public view. The Appellate Division said the case should be remanded to determine whether the plaintiff seeking the dashcam recordings should be allowed access to reports written about the episode in question and whether the plaintiff was entitled to counsel fees.
Appellate Division Judges Ellen Koblitz and Thomas Sumners, Jr. said lower courts are still waiting for the 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. However, 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 the case, Ganzweig v. Township of Lakewood, 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. The trial judge agreed that the dashcam video should be made public. Judges Koblitz and Sumners largely agreed in their majority ruling.
The Supreme 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. This is an important question as it will undoubtedly affect police departments, and police officers, throughout the State of New Jersey. As such, please continue to check this blog periodically for updates regarding the progression of this case.