Victory Achieved in Supreme Court Police Records Case

We have previously written about our nearly three-year battle to secure access to police records relating to the police-involved shooting of Kashad Ashford in 2014.  We are happy to announce that the Supreme Court of New Jersey has issued a landmark ruling in this case and has restored transparency over the use of force by police officers.  Our press release is available here.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the Court unanimously ruled that use of force reports, the names of officers involved in the shooting, and dash camera footage of the incident should be released.  The decision is legally significant and promotes transparency in several ways.

First, the Supreme Court agreed that the Attorney General’s policies are “laws” that defeat the criminal investigatory records exemption.  Thus, in any instance where a record is required to be “made, maintained, or kept on file” by an Attorney General guideline, policy, or directive, an agency may not claim the criminal investigatory records exemption.  A partial list of Attorney General guidelines, policies and directives are available here.  Some of the records that are required to be made and thus are not automatically exempt include vehicle pursuit reports, bias incident offense reports, and body-worn camera footage.

Second, the Supreme Court addressed the ongoing investigation exemption (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3a) for the first time.  This exemption permits nondisclosure of records pertaining to an ongoing investigation where release would be “inimical to the public interest.”  The Court said this means that the public’s interest in disclosure must actually be weighed against the state’s interest in nondisclosure.  The Court made it clear that while officer safety and integrity of an investigation are important concerns, the public’s interest in transparency when police use deadly force weighs in favor of access.  In order to overcome this important right to transparency, an agency cannot present “generic reasons” for non-disclosure—it must make a “particularized showing” of potential harm.

Third, the Court rejected the State’s argument that the names of officers who use force against citizens are confidential.  This is a very important component of this case, as the State argued that the public is not entitled to know the names of officers who shoot suspects unless those officers are criminally charged.  Eventually, in other cases, the State took the position that the public is never entitled to know which officers use even minor levels of force, such as wrist strikes.  The Supreme Court’s decision restores transparency over the use of force by police, which will permit civil rights advocates to collect use of force reports and analyze trends in the use of force.

Finally, the Court granted access to dash cam footage.  Although in this case the Court said access was granted under the common law only because neither party pointed to a “law” that required dash cam footage to be made, maintained, or kept on file, the Court left open the question as to whether a local directive of the chief of police constitutes a “law” that would satisfy that standard and defeat the criminal investigatory records exemption.  That question will be answered later this year or in early 2018 when the Court hears Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.   Importantly, as noted above, body-worn camera footage is required to be maintained pursuant to Attorney General Directive No. 2015-1, so such videos are not automatically exempt as criminal investigatory records.

This landmark ruling has garnered national attention from the news media, including an editorial by the New York Times.

Supreme Court Restores Access to Electronically Stored Information

Last year, in Paff v. Township of Galloway, 444 N.J. Super. 495 (App. Div. 2016), the Appellate Division issued a rather shocking decision —in essence, the court held that even though OPRA includes electronically stored information is in the definition of “government records,” an agency has no obligation to extract that data because it would be “creating a new record.”

Mr. Paff’s request involved a log of emails that included the “to,” “from,” “subject,” and “date.” The agency admitted that it could print the log and it would take only two to three minutes to do so, but it argued that printing out that data in the format of a log would be creating a new record.   Since Paff v. Township of Galloway was issued, we have seen public agencies try to argue that they do not have to print payroll reports, accounts receivables reports, and other common reports from their databases because doing so would be “creating a new record.”

Thankfully, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey restored OPRA access to electronically stored information. The Court held that “A document is nothing more than a compilation of information—discrete facts and data. By OPRA’s language, information in electronic form, even if part of a larger document, is itself a government record. Thus, electronically stored information extracted from an email is not the creation of a new record or new information; it is a government record.” The Court noted that OPRA contemplates the “programming of information technology,” and that this is precisely what is required to extract the electronic information that Mr. Paff sought.

The Supreme Court also found that the Appellate Division erred in giving the Government Record Council’s (GRC) guidance to the Township of Galloway “substantial deference.” In fact, the Court reminded lower courts that the GRC’s decisions and guidance are not entitled to any deference, let alone substantial deference. This is important because too often agencies try to convince lower courts that they must follow what the GRC says, even though the OPRA statute states otherwise.

In today’s world, there are fewer and fewer records that exist only in paper form and much information is now stored electronically in databases and accounting programs. The Supreme Court’s decision ensures that the public is entitled to access such electronically stored information, just as OPRA says.

Email Searches Must Include Search of Township Server and Personal Email Boxes

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden recently secured a victory in Matt Mills v. Township of Monroe, a case that challenged the sufficiency of a public agency’s search for emails responsive to an OPRA request.

In this case, Mr. Mills requested emails sent to or from various township employees and officials relating to the township’s EMS services. After the township responded to the request and produced emails, Mr. Mills noticed that not everything was produced. After he followed up, the township produced more emails, but Mr. Mills was still aware of other emails that were not produced. This included emails from one township councilman’s private email account. After Mr. Mills once again followed up, he still felt certain that not all emails were produced. Ultimately, he filed a request to the County and found that there were even more emails from one councilman in particular, but that were not produced by the township. At that point, Mr. Mills filed suit against the township.

This case presented a frequent problem that occurs: all too frequently, Records Custodians permit employees to search their own email boxes when a request for e-mails comes in. This creates several potential problems. First, an individual employee may not even know how to correctly search their email boxes for responsive emails. Second, a search of an individual’s email box on their local desktop will not recover emails that they may have deleted as a matter of course. Third, if the individual employee has emails that are incriminating or embarrassing, they may opt not to produce them.   The problem is exacerbated when a public employee uses their personal emails to conduct government business, as the Custodian has no control over those email accounts and items deleted from the personal account (such as yahoo or gmail) may not be recoverable from a server.

The Honorable Georgia M. Curio, A.J.S.C., found the township violated OPRA by failing to properly search for responsive emails. She found that a proper search must include a search of the township’s email server, so as to ensure that even emails that were deleted from local inboxes would be recovered. She ordered the township to conduct a new search of the township server, to produce all of the emails that are found, and to submit a sworn certification that describes the search and the township’s records retention policy. Because it was clear that at least some of the officials used private accounts to conduct government business, the judge ordered each individual named in the OPRA requests to perform searches of their private email accounts and to submit sworn certifications about their searches.

NJ Advance Media has covered Mr. Mills’ victory.  Additionally, the South Jersey Times wrote an editorial encouraging public agencies to stay away from private email use.

 

Borough Invokes Automatic Fee for OPRA Requests

The Borough of Flemington has made the news recently when it voted to impose an automatic special service charge on all OPRA requests that the Custodian estimates will take over two hours to fulfill.  When the Custodian receives such a request, she will provide an estimate to the requestor who will then have to pay one-third of the costs in advance.

We previously discussed the imposition of special service charges on this blog.  While OPRA does permit a special service charge where a request requires an “extraordinary expenditure of time and effort to accommodate,” as previously discussed, neither the courts nor the GRC have considered a mere two hours of time to be an “extraordinary expenditure of time.”

The Borough will likely find significant opposition, and perhaps a legal challenge, to this new policy.

A3626 Will Hinder Transparency Over Police Shootings

OPRA permits agencies to withhold most criminal investigatory records, but requires them to disclose certain enumerated information to the public:

if an arrest has been made, information as to the name, address and age of any victims unless there has not been sufficient opportunity for notification of next of kin of any victims of injury and/or death to any such victim or where the release of the names of any victim would be contrary to existing law or court rule. In deciding on the release of information as to the identity of a victim, the safety of the victim and the victim’s family, and the integrity of any ongoing investigation, shall be considered;

if an arrest has been made, information as to the defendant’s name, age, residence, occupation, marital status and similar background information and, the identity of the complaining party unless the release of such information is contrary to existing law or court rule;

information as to the text of any charges such as the complaint, accusation and indictment unless sealed by the court or unless the release of such information is contrary to existing law or court rule;

information as to the identity of the investigating and arresting personnel and agency and the length of the investigation;

information of the circumstances immediately surrounding the arrest, including but not limited to the time and place of the arrest, resistance, if any, pursuit, possession and nature and use of weapons and ammunition by the suspect and by the police; and

information as to circumstances surrounding bail, whether it was posted and the amount thereof.

[N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(b).]

This disclosure requirement permits the public to know information about crimes that have occurred in their communities.

Currently pending in the Legislature is A3626, which amends N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(b) to provide that “personal identifying information of violent crime victims and witnesses are confidential.”  “Personal identifying information” is defined as including, but not limited to the following information about the victim of a violent crime (“a crime involving force or the threat of force”):  “identity, name, home and work addresses, home and work telephone numbers, home and work fax numbers, social security number, driver’s license number, email address, or social media address of a violent crime victim or witness.”

Unfortunately, A3626 will significantly decrease transparency in the State, specifically with regard to police-involved shootings. It is not implausible to think that agencies will argue that officers who witness another officer shoot a suspect are now “witness[es] to a violent crime” (or potential violent crime, as all police-involved shootings are investigated for criminality).  Even under the current statutory scheme, agencies already deny access to the names of officers involved in shootings and other uses of force. See North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Twp. of Lyndhurst, 441 N.J. Super. 70 (App. Div.), leave to appeal granted, 223 N.J. 553 (2015) (agency argues that public has no right to use of force reports or names of officers involved in shooting a suspect).

Moreover, given that A3626 exempts the identity of a victim, it also plausible that agencies will begin refusing to release information about a specific crime because their response would confirm that a specific person was a victim to the crime. For example, if the media is aware that John Doe was brutally shot and makes a request for Section 3(b) information about John Doe’s shooting, agencies might “neither confirm nor deny” that such shooting occurred because responding to the request would confirm that John Doe was a victim and such information would be exempt under A3626. See North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, 447 N.J. Super. 182 (App. Div. 2016) (permitting agencies to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of complaints against a specific person where such information is exempt).

While it’s clear that the Sponsors of the bill simply want to protect victims of crime, A3626 is not needed. Most of the actual personal information that A3626 exempts is already exempt, such as social security numbers, telephone numbers, and driver’s license numbers.  See N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(a).  Moreover, as it is currently written, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(b) already permits an agency to withhold the identity of the victim it the agency determines releasing the information “will jeopardize the safety of any person or jeopardize any investigation in progress or may be otherwise inappropriate to release.”

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Agencies May Charge Special Service Charges, But Only In Rare Cases

One question we frequently receive is whether an agency can charge a requestor an hourly rate to respond to an OPRA request.   The answer is yes, but only in specific circumstances where a requestor seeks an extraordinarily large volume of records.

N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(c) provides that:

Whenever the nature, format, manner of collation, or volume of a government record embodied in the form of printed matter to be inspected, examined, or copied pursuant to this section is such that the record cannot be reproduced by ordinary document copying equipment in ordinary business size or involves an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort to accommodate the request, the public agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplicating the record, a special service charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based upon the actual direct cost of providing the copy or copies

Our courts and the Government Records Council consider several factors in determining what constitutes an “extraordinary expenditure of time and effort.”  Specifically, they look at:

  • The volume of government records involved
  • The period of time over which the records were received by the governmental unit
  • Whether some or all of the records sought are archived
  • The amount of time required for a government employee to locate, retrieve and assemble the documents for inspection or copying, and then return them to their original storage location
  • Whether redaction is required
  • The size of the agency and number of employees available to accommodate document requests
  • The availability of information technology and copying capabilities

In other words, what may be “extraordinary” to one very small agency might be routine to larger agencies.

There are only three published judicial opinions on the issue of special service charges.  The Supreme Court permitted a special service charge where millions of microfilmed land records needed to be redacted by an outside vendor. See Burnett v. County of Bergen, 198 N.J. 408 (2008) (permitting the agency to pass along the actual cost to the requestor). The Appellate Division permitted a special service charge where deputy attorney generals spent over 55 hours reviewing and redacting 15,000 emails. Fisher v. Division of Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61, 65 (App. Div. 2008).  Finally, the Law Division permitted a special service charge where the requestor sought six-and-a-half years of legal invoices by four different law firms, which totaled thousands of redacted pages. See Courier Post v. Lenape Reg’l High Sch., 360 N.J. Super. 191, 199 (Law Div. 2002).

Generally, however, most special service decisions reside with the GRC.  Though they are not precedential in court, the decisions are instructive.  Recently, in Rozzi v. Lacey Twp. Bd. of Educ., GRC Complaint No. 2015-224 (Jan. 31, 2007), the GRC ruled that a school board could not charge a special service charge for a request where it took the agency four hours to retrieve 37 pages of records from storage. Even though the custodian certified that the requested checks were difficult to locate in numerous boxes in the agency’s storage site, the GRC held that “given the amount of time expended, just over half of a working date, in tandem with the number of responsive records (37 pages) that were not redacted, and the resources available to the school district [(a district with 3,000 students and a $60 million budget)], the evidence of record does not support that the special service charge was warranted or reasonable due to an ‘extraordinary amount of time and effort.’”

As a general rule, most GRC decisions have found no special service charge was warranted where a request took less than ten hours to fulfill, but response times above ten hours may invoke a special service charge for smaller agencies. See Diamond v. Twp. of Old Bridge, GRC Complaint No. 2003-15 (Feb. 18, 2014) (holding 4 hours of time did not justify special service charge); Carter v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-281/2013-282/2013-283 (Oct. 28, 2014) (holding no special service charge warranted for nearly roughly 8 hours of time to search for emails); Verry v. Borough of South Bound Brook, GRC Complaint No. 2010-105/2010-106. Compare Loder v. County of Passaic, GRC Complaint No. 2005-161 (Feb. 8, 2016) (permitting special service charge where it took 32 hours to review thousands of pages); Vessio v. Twp. of Barnegat, GRC Complaint No. 2006-70 (April 25, 2007)(permitting special service charge where request took 14 hours of review); Renna v. County of Union, GRC Complaint No.: 2004-134 (April 11, 2006)(permitting service charge for nearly 40 hours of time to compile records.).

Often, agencies hold the records “hostage” unless the requestor first pays the fee.  Luckily, our courts have held that paying the fee in order to gain access to the records does not mean that a requestor forfeits the right to challenge the fee in court and get a refund.

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Yes, You May “OPRA an OPRA Request”

For years, individuals have filed OPRA requests with agencies to obtain all of the OPRA requests an agency has received during a specific timeframe.  Requestors use these records in a variety of ways, such as a) finding out how many OPRA requests an agency is handling during any specific timeframe (since agencies have no obligation to calculate that information and let the public know); b) being able to contact another member of the public who is interested in the same type of government issues; c) learning more about government by seeing what other requestors are seeking from their government.

While local governments have generally continued to comply with such requests, unfortunately in 2014 the State began denying all requests for OPRA requests (perhaps not coincidentally, when the requests began to ask for other requests about the Bridgegate scandal).  The trial court ruled against the State, but the matters were stayed.  Accordingly, since 2014, requestors have not been able to obtain copies of OPRA requests that were filed with any State agency.

Recently, however, the Appellate Division issued a published opinion and rejected the State’s appeal.  In Scheeler v. Office of the Governor, __ N.J. Super. __ (2017), the Appellate Division held that there is no blanket exemption that permits an agency to deny access to all OPRA requests that were filed with the agency.  While the Court noted that there may be circumstances where a single OPRA request might invoke a confidentiality concern (such as containing trade secrets), overwhelmingly that will not be the case.

The Court also re-affirmed its prior holdings and concluded that a request for all OPRA requests filed during a specific timeframe was valid and did not require “research.”

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

The Third Exception to OPRA’s Personnel Records Exemption

The third exception to OPRA’s personnel records exemption provides that:

data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record.

[N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.]

In Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581, 593 (2011), the Supreme Court has made it clear that this exception does not authorize disclosure of all records that “evidence an employee’s educational background or even that evidence an employee’s participation in educational pursuits generally.”  Rather, the Court held that the exception makes available only records “that would demonstrate that a government employee lacked a required credential and therefore failed to meet the minimum qualifications for the position.”

What this means is that if there is a certain training certificate or license or degree that must be obtained in order to hold a government position (or to receive a promotion), then the public is entitled to know that information.  So, a requestor could seek a copy of a Municipal Clerk’s RMC (Registered Municipal Clerk) license and continuing education certificates, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-133 requires clerks to receive an RMC certificate.  Similarly, if a requestor seeks a list of training courses that a police officer has taken, the agency must produce the list but may redact any courses that are not mandatory.

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

A4532 Will Hinder Transparency

This week, Assembly Bill A4532 passed out of the State and Local Government Committee and will likely be voted on by the Assembly at some point in the near future.  This bill will severely hinder transparency in this State in two ways.

First, A4532 creates a new exemption for “personal government records,” which are defined as records “that consists of or pertains solely to a pet or home alarm system permit, license, or registration.”  While I understand that the sponsor of the bill is concerned that businesses utilize these lists as marketing tools, these lists can be very valuable resources to members of the public.  For example, animal rights advocates routinely use lists of pet license holders to notify pet owners that the local animal shelter has health code violations or inhumane conditions.  As a result of such activism, shelters have been placed into new management or shut down altogether.  Other animal rights advocates have used the list to expose backyard breeders who do not have their pets licensed.  If these records are exempted from public access, it will be much harder for these advocates to advance their cause.

Second, as it is currently written, A4532 changes OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision so that an agency that acts in “good faith” and is “reasonable” will not have to pay fees even if the court rules in the requestor’s favor. Such a change will gut OPRA.  The mandatory fee-shifting provision is what gives OPRA “teeth” because it permits requestors to sue to gain access to records and be assured that their attorney fees will be covered.  If fees are only provided where the agency was unreasonable or acted in bad faith, then cases of first impression will not be litigated because it will be too easy for the agency to say they were “reasonable” in denying a request since they had no guidance.  Additionally, in any case where there is a conflict in legal authority (such as a GRC decision that conflicts with a court decision), the agency will try to escape fees by saying they were “reasonable” in following one instead of the other.

Simply put, without the assurance of a mandatory fee, requestors will be unable to find attorneys who will represent them on a contingency basis.  This means that cases will not be litigated and the State will be less transparent as a result.

According to John Paff, the sponsors of the bill insist that they did not intend for the fee-shifting provision to be altered as to all types of OPRA cases and only intend to change it as to “personal government records.”  The bill as written, however, simply does not say that.  Moreover, if there is a blanket exemption for “personal government records,” there is no need to change the fee-shifting provision because a requestor will never “prevail” anyway.

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Exception 2 to OPRA’s Personnel Records Exemption

Last week we discussed Exception 1 to OPRA’s personnel records exemption, which permits you to file an OPRA request for a public employee’s “name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record.”  This week, we explore Exception 2.

Exception 2 provides that: “personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible when required to be disclosed by another law, when disclosure is essential to the performance of official duties of a person duly authorized by this State or the United States, or when authorized by an individual in interest.”

This Exception has been largely un-litigated and thus the Courts have still not defined the scope of this exception.  In McGee v. Twp. of E. Amwell, 416 N.J. Super. 602, 616, 7 A.3d 785, 793 (App. Div. 2010), the Appellate Division held that emails about an employee were “personnel records” even though they were not filed in a personnel folder and that Exception 2 would permit the employee to request them because she would be an “individual in interest” who could authorize the release.

Regarding the phrase, “personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible when required to be disclosed by another law,” we will explore this portion of Exception 2 next week when we explore Exception 3 because the two exceptions work closely together in some instances.

For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.