As reported by NJ.com, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling wherein video of New Jersey Police Officers chasing down and arresting suspects will not be turned over to the public and the media in many cases. A divided Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in the matter entitled Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office that police dashboard videos are criminal investigatory records exempt under the State’s Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA, which is the primary method by which many police records are disclosed.
The decision still allows for some videos to be released, but largely cements a common practice among police departments across the State: refusing to release any video tied to a criminal investigation, sometimes even months or years after that investigation is closed. In a majority ruling last summer, the Supreme Court found that videos of deadly police shootings should be made public under what’s known as the common law right of access. This case, however, argued a wider category of police videos should be made public, in part because they are records required to be maintained by order of local police chiefs and prosecutors.
Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Anne Patterson found that while directives from the State Attorney General, the State’s top law enforcement official, carry the force of law, the same cannot be said for local police executives. In other words, the majority found that, unless the Attorney General orders police officers to keep the cameras rolling, the video they produce are not subject to OPRA. In dissent, Justice Barry Albin wrote that the lesser-known common law right of access is “a difficult and burdensome path fraught with litigation and increased costs” that would limit the public’s access. To this end, the Supreme Court declined to weigh in on whether the video should have been released under the common law right of access, sending that question back to the lower court to rule upon.
Even before this decision, many police departments across the State only released dashboard or body camera footage in a few circumstances. Those included drunken driving cases, which are not motor vehicle violations nor criminal matters, and fatal police shootings. The particular video sought in the Paff matter depicted a 2014 incident in which a Tuckerton police officer utilized a K-9 on a woman during an arrest. Nevertheless, in the years between the Plaintiff’s initial request and the Supreme Court ruling, the video already surfaced and was published online by certain media outlets.
All New Jersey Public Safety Officers should be cognizant of the Supreme Court ruling to determine whether the practices of their respective departments will be altered to conform with the decision. To this end, please continue to check this blog periodically to ascertain important updates going forward.