Category Archives: Articles

OPRA Modernization Bill – copying fee problems

Every year, transparency warrior Senator Loretta Weinberg introduces a bill which would modernize and improve OPRA. This year’s bill is S107. Given that Democrats now control the Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s Office, we are hopeful that the bill has a chance of passing.

While the bill overwhelmingly improves OPRA, through a series of blogs we will highlight how some small provisions of the bill that seem non-controversial can actually cause some major problems for requestors.

First topic? Copying costs.

Currently, agencies cannot charge a copying charge to send requestors PDFs of documents. One creative way that agencies try to stall access to records is to think of a way to charge for them. Sadly, S107 will make such conduct perfectly legal.

S107 amends N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(b) so that “a public agency may charge the fee for each copy made in the process of responding to a government record request made during the redaction process.”  What this means is that if an agency has to print a copy of a record to redact it, it can charge for that copy even if it ends up scanning the record to the requestor in a PDF.

Hypothetical:

John Doe files an OPRA request for a copy of an employee’s one-page pay stub. The Custodian is obligated to redact the employee’s social security number from that document, so she prints a copy of it and redacts it. S107 allows her to charge 5 cents for that record. She emails John Doe and tells him that he has to pay 5 cents before she will email the pay stub to him and that he can either mail in a check or come pay by check at the clerk’s office.

John Doe now has to find his checkbook, write a check for a measly 5 cents, pay 49 cents for a sttamp, and wait 1-3 business days for it to arrive and the Custodian to email the pay stub to him. Or, he can take time off work to go drop off a check during the Custodian’s business hours. That’s an awfully big hurdle to receive a pay stub! It’s not the cost is too much, but the hassle of having to arrange to pay the fee discourages and delays access. But, S107 permits it.

This is not a crazy hypothetical, by the way. Things like this actually happen all the time. The GRC has addressed this issue several times, such as in Galloway Township News and Paff.

Hopefully this provision will be removed as the S107 works its way through committees.

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Update: Court Orders Disclosure of Facebook “Blocked Users” Lists

We previously wrote about an OPRA lawsuit we filed on behalf of citizen seeking a list of users that various public officials from Glen Rock have blocked from their official Facebook accounts. Today we are happy to report that the suit was successful.

In Larkin v. Glen Rock, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled that the lists of blocked users from each of the Facebook pages in questions were “government records” that are subject to access under OPRA. In her 23-page opinion, the judge noted that there is no “one-size-fit-all” approach to determine whether a particular Facebook account falls within OPRA’s scope. Rather, she applied a “fact-sensitive review” of the Facebook pages at issue to conclude that they were indeed subject to OPRA.  Among other things, the judge noted that:

  • The mayor and each council member’s Facebook pages “clearly identified them as elected members of the Glen Rock governing body”
  • Each page was “separate and distinct from their personal, friends and family Facebook pages”
  • Each page “was used for the sole purpose of discussing matters directly pending before the Mayor and Council,” including topics such as “ordinances, resolutions, budgets, and committees on which the Mayor or council member serves.”
  • The posts on each page “shared ideas, answered questions and interacted with constituents and the public at large about the Borough’s official business”

The court also rejected Glen Rock’s argument that those who were blocked by the public officials had a right to privacy.

 

Video

Lawsuit for Facebook “Blocked” Lists

It’s a hot button topic: are government officials creating government records that are subject to OPRA when they utilize social media? A judge will soon decide.

CJ Griffin was recently interviewed by Fios 1 News television regarding a lawsuit she filed on behalf of a requestor seeking a list of users that various government officials have blocked from their official Facebook accounts.

The Record also covered the lawsuit.

We think the answer is obvious: if a government official conducts official government business on a social media account (such as updating constituents on official matters), than those accounts are government records and are subject to access under OPRA.

A “block” list is available on both Twitter and Faceook. Sample request language:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the list of blocked users from the Facebook or Twitter account of _________. The URL of that account is _______________.”

AG Issues New Police Shooting Video Directive

Last week, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal issued Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2018-1, which provides instructions to law enforcement agencies in this State regarding public access to dash camera and body camera footage of police-involved shootings.  We find that there are both pros and cons to this new directive.

Pros:
On one hand, we are very happy to see that the new Attorney General clearly understands that transparency advances public trust in law enforcement. The overall spirit of this directive is positive and it recognizes that law enforcement do not need permanent confidentiality over their records–the directive requires disclosure of police shooting videos within 20 days, in most cases. The presumption of access is important and we hope that agencies will follow the directive and will not seek constant extensions of time to release these videos.

Cons:
On the other hand, the new directive does not give the public any more access than already existed pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst. If anything, the new directive may make access to police shooting videos slower, as the Lyndhurst decision held that access must be granted “within a few days” and the new directive sets a timeline of 20 days.  We fear that  requestors will now need to wait for 20 days after an incident to file an OPRA request, then wait an additional 7 business days to gain access to the video. This is much slower than what we have experienced the past several months since the Lyndhurst decision was issued.

We are also disappointed that the directive only applies to videos which depict the use of deadly force or where other force results in “serious bodily injury.”  We think that the spirit of the Lyndhurst decision makes it clear that most police videos should be released relatively soon after an incident occurs, but the new directive applies Lyndhurst very narrowly and the public will still struggle to gain access to police video which shows other types of misconduct or more minimal uses of force.  For example, we think that if a police officer uses a racial slur toward a suspect while arresting them, the public should be able to see the video.  The new directive, however, would not require disclosure unless the suspect was seriously injured.  This is problematic.

News Coverage:
PSWH Partner CJ Griffin was quoted in NJ Advance Media’s article on the new directive.

 

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Appellate Division Rules Agencies Cannot Hide Behind Technology

Last week, the Appellate Division issued a published decision that is very important to transparency.  While the court’s analysis of its standard of review over GRC decisions will excite appellate attorneys, it is the more substantive portion of the court’s decision that grabbed our attention.

The case is Conley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corrections, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. Jan. 12, 2018), and it involves an OPRA request that was filed by Kevin Conley, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison.

Mr. Conley’s OPRA request sought “monthly remedy statistical reports” that were required to be produced by N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.8(a)(4) and other federal laws. He had requested these reports in the past and they were always produced, but this time the DOC responded by saying that it had adopted a new computerized database in January 2014 and the requested monthly reports “are no longer generated or available.”

Mr. Conley objected, noting that he had always gotten the reports before and that the DOC was mandated by law to produce these monthly reports. The DOC continued to deny the request, insisting that it no longer generates the reports and that it was not obligated to “create a record.”

Mr. Conley filed a complaint on his own in the Government Records Council (tip: we advise going to court instead!) and lost. The GRC accepted the DOC Custodian’s certification that it did not possess the monthly reports and ruled that it did not violate OPRA.

The Appellate Division reversed the GRC. It noted that the DOC was mandated by federal and State regulations to make the monthly reports. It held that were it to accept the DOC’s argument that the report was no longer available based on the manner by which DOC chose to store this public data, it would render “the public policy of transparency and openness the Legislature codified in [OPRA] unacceptably vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation.”

Importantly, the Court held that “[t]echnological advancements in data storage should enhance, not diminish, the public’s right to access ‘government records’ under OPRA . . . . A government agency cannot erect technological barriers to deny access to government records.”

What does this mean for OPRA requestors?  This case builds upon the Supreme Court’s recent holding in Paff v. Galloway, which held that electronically stored information is a government record that must be produced. Where an agency is obligated by law to produce a certain type of report or a specific document each month (or year) and it fails to do so because it has moved to an electronic database, it cannot avoid its obligations under OPRA. It would need to pull data from its database to produce the report/document to the requestor.

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 2

We recently blogged about how you can use OPRA to gain access to records which shine light on the use of force by police officers. This blog discusses other types of police records that will help you monitor your local police department.

Internal Affairs Annual Summary Reports:

The Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy requires law enforcement agencies to release an annual summary report to the public which “summarizes the types of [internal affairs] complaints received and the dispositions of those complaints.” This report, usually in the form of a chart, will help you monitor the types of complaints that are being lodged against officers.

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek your police department’s Internal Affairs Annual Summary Report for 2016.”

Internal Affairs Public Synopsis of Disciplinary Action:

Requirement 10 of the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy also requires law enforcement agencies to periodically disclose to the public “a brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of ten days or more was assessed to an agency member.” While the report will not identify the officer by name, it should briefly outline the nature of the transgression and the fine or sentence that was imposed. This permits the public to see details of more serious internal affairs allegations that were sustained and will highlight an agency’s most egregious problems.

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek your agency’s Public Synopsis of Disciplinary Actions for years 2014 to 2017. This report is required pursuant to Requirement 10 of the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Police.”

Vehicle Pursuit Reports:

Vehicle pursuits not only put the suspect and police officers at risk, but also other people who happen to be in their way. Every year there are reports where innocent bystanders are injured or killed when a vehicle slams into theirs during the course of a police pursuit.

There are two reports which will help you monitor vehicle pursuits. First, pursuant to the Attorney General’s Police Vehicular Pursuit Policy an officer must complete a “Police Pursuit Incident Report” for every pursuit. If you read about a pursuit in the newspaper, you can request this report to find out more details about who was involved in the incident.

Second, the Attorney General’s policy requires every municipal police agency to submit an annual agency “Vehicular Pursuit Summary Report” to the county prosecutor, which will detail the total number of pursuits and other useful information. You can compare these reports to other towns or look to see if any particular officer engages in pursuits more frequently.

A sample of both reports can be found here:

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek a copy of the Police Pursuit Incident Report for the vehicle chase that occurred last night near Exit 151 on the Garden State Parkway and the police department’s Vehicular Pursuit Summary Report for 2016.”

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 1

Police officers have the ability to arrest and detain suspects, to seize property, and to lawfully use force against people when justified.  Because police officers are given these tremendous powers, we hold them to very high standards—we expect that they will be honest, trustworthy, and follow the law and the Constitution.

In a two-part series, we will discuss how you can use OPRA to monitor police conduct. This blog highlights records you can request to monitor the use of force by police officers.

Use of Force Reports:

Pursuant to the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, every time an officer uses any level of force against an individual they must complete a Use of Force Report (“UFR”).  A UFR is a simple one-page report that provides information about a specific use of force incident, such as the names and biographical data of those involved and the type of force that was used. A model form is available here.

You can request UFRs relating to a single specific incident of force that you read about in the news or you can request all of an agency’s UFRs for a specific timeframe. By requesting all of an agency’s UFRs during a specific timeframe, you can determine how often force is used and whether there are any patterns that emerge, such as whether a specific officer uses force far more frequently than other officers or whether certain races are the target of force more often than others.

Sample OPRA requests:
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I would like all of your police department’s Use of Force Reports from January 1, 2017 to present date.”

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek all UFRs that were created as a result of the police-involved shooting that occurred on May 1, 2017 involving a suspect named Bob Jones.”

Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Deadly Notification Report:

Where deadly force is used, a “Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Deadly Notification Report” must also be completed. This is true even if the deadly force does not actually result in death. If a police officer shoots at someone, that action constitutes the use of deadly force even if the officer misses. A model AG Notification Report is available here.

Sample OPRA request:
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I would like all of your police department’s Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Deadly Notification Reports for the year 2016.”

Body-Worn Camera Footage:

Recently, The Lab @ DC released a report which suggests that Body Cams do not change police behavior and cause them to use force less often.  Body Cams do, however, promote transparency over the police. For example, The Trentonian has recently published Body Cam footage that has exposed police officers bragging about roughing up suspects. The public obviously has a significant interest in knowing that its officers are behaving this way so that it can advocate for discipline or leadership change.

Because Body Cam Footage is required to be made and maintained by Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2015-1, it cannot be exempt under OPRA’s criminal investigatory records exemption. It may, however, be exempt under the ongoing investigation exemption depending on the nature of the tape, when it was created, and whether releasing it would be harmful to the public interest. The Supreme Court, however, has said that the public’s interest is in disclosure where police use of force is involved and that an agency should not need to withhold police video for more than a few days in most instances.

Sample OPRA request:
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek all Body-Worn Camera Footage for the police-involved shooting that occurred on 5/1/17 at 29 Main Street.”

Dash Camera Footage:

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that dash camera videos that relate to criminal incidents are not subject to OPRA because there is no law that requires it to be made, thus it is a criminal investigatory record. That may change when the Court decides Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office next year. In the interim, the Court has made it clear that dash cam footage should be routinely disclosed under the common law right of access.  Accordingly, make sure to invoke the common law when you file your records request.

Dash camera footage that relates to a non-criminal incident, however, is subject to OPRA. So, if your mayor was caught on tape after being pulled over for a DWI, that video should be publicly accessible.

Sample OPRA request:
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, please provide all dash camera footage from the incident that occurred on October 1, 2017 wherein Mayor Jones was pulled over for a DWI.”

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.