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Bill Would Exempt Addresses of Legislators, Probation Officers

As our readers may recall, Governor Murphy recently signed “Daniel’s Law” into law, which exempts the home addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from access under OPRA. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature would expand those exemptions to include two additional categories of persons.

Among other things, Senate Bill 3209  exempts from OPRA “that portion of any document which discloses the home address, whether a primary or secondary residence, of any active, formerly active, or retired probation officer or member of the Legislature.”

The addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, probation officers and members of the Legislature are likely to appear in land deeds, property tax records, financial disclosure statements, and a variety of other quintessential public records that are available online in a variety of databases.

It is difficult to understand how public agencies would comply with this proposed law. There is no comprehensive list of every current and former probation officer or legislator that has ever worked or held office in this state so that a clerk would know which records to redact. NJ Advance Media has already written about how some agencies are struggling to comply with Daniel’s Law because there is similarly no master list of every current or former judge, prosecutor, or law enforcement officer that has ever worked in this state. Collectively, Daniel’s Law and S.3209 likely exempt tens of thousands of addresses.

S.3209 will be heard on January 14, 2021 at 10:15 a.m. in the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee.

For questions about this blog or OPRA, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

2020 Transparency Year in Review

Happy New Year! The year 2020 was a year unlike any other. As we look back at transparency issues that arose over the past year, we hope that this blog finds our readers healthy and well.

Pandemic Creates Transparency Hurdles

Transparency was front and center in New Jersey in 2020, although sometimes it was the lack of transparency that was the focus.

On March 9, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 103 to declare a Public Health Emergency in New Jersey. Days later, the Legislature rushed to amend the Open Public Meetings Act (OPRA) so that public agencies would not have to comply with the statute’s seven-day deadline during the pandemic. As a result, many requestors have found their OPRA requests stalled for weeks or months with no response. Given that Governor Murphy will likely continue to extend the Public Health Emergency declarations for quite some time, requestors can expect access to be slow for many more months.

Another major transparency hurdle in 2020 was the Emergency Health Powers Act. The 2005 law is designed to give the Governor vast powers during a public health crisis, but it also contains an expansive exemption that sates: “Any correspondence, records, reports and medical information made, maintained, received or filed pursuant to this act shall not be considered a public or government record under [OPRA].” N.J.S.A. 26:13-26. Several media outlets reported that the State was using the exemption to keep important information from the public, such as records about which medical facilities lacked protective gear or information about hospital capacity and supplies at nursing homes.

Police Use of Force Records

Access to police use of force records continues to be a challenge, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2017 decision in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), which held that such records should be accessible to the public.

In January, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Rivera v. Township of Bloomfield and held that police body-worn camera videos are subject to OPRA. The video at issue recorded police shooting and killing a man in Bloomfield in August 2017.

In February, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Digital First Media v. Ewing Township, 462 N.J. Super. 389 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, The Trentonian newspaper sought a copy of a Use of Force Report (UFR) that related to force that Ewing police officers used against a teenager. Although the trial court held that the UFR could not be released due to a statute that exempts records relating to juveniles charged as delinquent, the Appellate Division granted our appeal and ruled that the UFR must be released with the juvenile’s name redacted. Ewing Township was also required to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.

In October, we published a blog detailing how the State rarely complies with Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2019-4, which requires disclosure of videos of police deadly force incidents within 20 days. Per our count, only one video had been released within the 20-day deadline all year.

Transparency in Police Discipline

In 2020, there were some positive advances in transparency regarding police discipline on a policy level, but also a mixed bag when it came to judicial opinions on this issue.

In Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police, the requestor sought the name of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” for “engaging in racially offensive behavior.” Although both lower courts denied access to the name, the Supreme Court granted certification and was set to review the case. In mid-June, the Attorney General’s office reversed course, granted access to the name, paid the requestor’s legal fees, and issued Law Enforcement Directives 2020-5 and 2020-6. The Directives require disclosure of the names of officers who receive “major discipline,” information that had never been disclosed before.

Shortly after the Directives were issued, several police unions filed challenges and argued that the Attorney General lacked the authority to compel such disclosures. In October 2020, the Appellate Division upheld the Directives. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court granted certification and oral argument is set for March 2021. In the interim, the Directives are stayed and no disclosures have been made.

In mid-June, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court decision that had compelled access to internal affairs reports relating to the former Police Director of the City of Elizabeth Police Department who had resigned after it came to light that he used “racist and misogynistic slurs.” The Appellate Division concluded that internal affairs reports are confidential pursuant to the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy and cannot be released even pursuant to the common law right of access. A petition for certification is pending.

In late June, a bill was introduced in the Senate to make all police disciplinary records subject to OPRA, including police internal affairs files. Although Senate Bill No. 2656 has not yet been heard in a committee, more than 100 organizations have endorsed it. New Jersey is one of only 21 states that treat all internal affairs records confidential.

During a July 15th public hearing before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal seemed to embrace greater transparency in internal affairs investigations, stating: “[W]hen it comes to the transparency of police disciplinary records, New Jersey needs to end its outlier status and move towards greater openness. We can and should be a national leader on this issue.”

In early December, the Attorney General released the internal affairs files of Philip Seidle, a former Neptune police officer who shot and killed his wife in 2015. The Asbury Park Press had been fighting in court to gain access to the files for several years. Its case remains pending as to whether the newspaper is entitled to legal fees and whether such files are subject to access under OPRA.

Other Significant Transparency Decisions

There were a few OPRA decisions by the Appellate Division this year, at least two of which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year.

In February, the Appellate Division ruled in Bozzi v. Borough of Roselle Park, 462 N.J. Super. 415 (App. Div. 2020), that there was no privacy interest that precluded a commercial requestor from obtaining a list of dog license holders so that he could send them solicitations for his electric fence installation service. The Supreme Court granted certification in a separate case that reached the same conclusion, Bozzi v. City of Jersey City, and the case is pending.

In June, the Appellate Division held in Simmons v. Mercado, 464 N.J. Super. 77 (App. Div. 2020), that complaints and summonses are not “government records” that are subject to OPRA because the judiciary (which is not subject to OPRA) is the custodian of records and not the police departments who enter them into the judiciary’s computer system. The Supreme Court granted certification and the case is pending.

In September, the Appellate Division issued a disappointing opinion in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County, 465 N.J. Super. 11 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, our client learned that a county corrections officer had faced disciplinary charges for “engaging in sex” with two inmates and bringing them contraband, but that because the officer agreed to cooperate with an investigation he was allowed to retire in good standing with a pension pursuant to a separation agreement. In response to an OPRA request our client filed, Cumberland County stated that the officer was “terminated” and it denied access to the agreement. The trial court ruled that the County violated OPRA by falsely stating the officer was terminated when he was really permitted to retire in good standing and it compelled access to the agreement. Unfortunately, the Appellate Division reversed. Although it agreed that the County had not been truthful about the officer’s reason for separation, it found that the agreement was exempt under OPRA’s personnel record exemption. It remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether access should be granted under the common law, but the case is currently stayed while a petition for certification is pending in the Supreme Court.

In December 2020, John Paff reported that Cumberland County settled a lawsuit relating to the same officer for $150,000, in which a woman inmate had alleged that he and other corrections officers had sexually abused her.

The danger of the Libertarians decision is that it will permit public agencies to enter into agreements with employees and keep the details of those agreements a secret. This deprives the public of the ability to determine whether the agreement was reasonable and advanced the public’s interests. It will also likely allow the exchange of money without any public oversight whatsoever, something that is highly problematic.

In November, Governor Murphy signed A-1649 into law. Commonly known as “Daniel’s Law,” it exempts the addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from OPRA. It is unclear how public agencies will be able to comply with this law since there is no central list of such addresses to cross reference.

For more information about this blog or questions about OPRA, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Body Cams are Rarely Released on Time

Update as of 10/23/2020:  As mentioned below, we filed OPRA requests on September 26, 2020 for videos that had not been released.  On October 6, 2020, the State said it did not have body cam or dash cam footage of the shooting of Luan Agolli. However, it released some surveillance camera videos here. On October 7, 2020, the State identified the man who died in Totowa on June 27th as Sergio Rodgiguez. As of today, it has not released any videos and said such videos might be produced by October 28, 2020 (which will be 123 days from the incident).

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In New Jersey, the Attorney General’s Office is required to investigate “[w]henever a person’s death occurs during an encounter with a police officer . . . or while the decedent was in custody.” N.J.S.A. 52:17B-107. In light of that requirement, the Attorney General issued Law Enforcement Directive No. 2019-4, which outlines procedures for selecting the appropriate Independent Investigator and conducting a proper investigation for these fatal incidents. The Directive also requires the disclosure of videos of these incidents, but we find that the transparency measures are not closely followed.

According to Directive No. 2019-4, the “Independent Investigator must release the . . . Incident Footage within 20 days of the . . . Incident, unless the Attorney General, or designee, authorizes a delayed release.” This blog previously discussed a prior iteration of this Directive, highlighting how the 20-day disclosure requirement actually slowed down the access provided by the Supreme Court in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), which held that videos should be released “within days of an incident.” Now it appears that even the 20-day disclosure requirement is being consistently ignored.

Based on data collected from the Attorney General’s website, there have been 12 incidents since January 1, 2020 that the Attorney General’s office has investigated. Nine of these incidents were shootings and three were in-custody deaths:

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that the fastest time that any videos of these deadly incidents were released was 16 days. Those videos related to Maurice Gordon, who was shot and killed by an officer on the Garden State Parkway on May 23, 2020. Gordon’s death received significant media attention and activists demanded that the videos be released.

As detailed in the chart above, it appears that the Attorney General’s Office has complied with the 20-day disclosure requirement only a single time this year. Sometimes, investigators have taken more than double the time allotted by Directive No. 2019-4, with three incidents taking 44 days, 48 days, and 50 days. In the case of a man who died after a physical altercation with Trenton police, videos were not released for 153 days.

There are three incidents (two of which are in-custody deaths with unidentified decedents) where it does not appear that videos have been officially released. Working alongside our longtime client, Richard Rivera, we filed requests for these videos on September 26, 2020.

The Attorney General has repeatedly spoken out in favor of transparency, arguing that New Jersey should become national leaders on the issue. Ensuring that his office complies with his own Directives would be a good place to start.

For questions or comments about this article or about OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

Motion for reconsideration filed in case involving sustained allegations of “racist and misogynistic slurs”

We recently blogged about Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor’s Office, where the trial court granted access to the internal affairs reports of the former Police Director of the City of Elizabeth Police Department, who was the subject of an internal affairs investigation that concluded that he used “racist and misogynistic slurs” in the workplace. As an update, the Appellate Division reversed that decision and concluded that the records were not subject to OPRA on June 19, 2020.

Unfortunately, the Appellate Division did not simply deny access under OPRA. It also concluded that the internal affairs reports were not accessible under the common law. Plaintiff has filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that it was palpably incorrect for the Appellate Division to reach the issue of common law access because: 1) the trial court never reached the issue below; 2) the parties never briefed the issue before the Appellate Division; 3) the parties never addressed common law access at oral argument; and 4) no court ever reviewed the actual records in camera.

A copy of the motion for reconsideration brief is here.

For questions about this blog or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

 

Judge Rules IA Report of Former Police Director Who Used “Racist and Misogynistic Slurs” is Subject to OPRA; City & Prosecutor’s Office Appeal

Readers may recall from numerous news articles that in April 2019, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (UCPO) concluded that former City of Elizabeth Police Director James Cosgrove used “racist and misogynistic” language in the workplace. The Attorney General issued a press release confirming the internal affairs investigation’s findings, calling on Cosgrove to resign, and making leadership changes at UCPO.

After UCPO denied an OPRA request for Cosgrove’s internal affairs reports, CJ Griffin filed a lawsuit on behalf of Plaintiff Richard Rivera seeking access to the reports pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access. See Richard Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Docket No. UNN-L-2954-19. Mr. Rivera is Co-Chair of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey’s Civil Rights Protection Project, a former municipal police officer, and a well-known civil rights advocate.

The City of Elizabeth intervened in the suit and vigorously defended UCPO’s denial of access alongside UCPO.

In February 2020, the Hon. James Hely, J.S.C. of the Superior Court, Union County, held that Cosgrove’s internal affairs reports were subject to access under OPRA. Judge Hely issued an order compelling the UCPO to produce the reports for in camera review so that the identities of witnesses and complainants could be protected by redaction.

Elizabeth and UCPO moved for reconsideration and a stay of the order. In an opinion denying those motions, Judge Hely wrote in part:

At the dawn of the 20th century, WEB Dubois declared “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” The Souls of Black Folks (1903).

We are now 20 years into the 21st century and racial hostility, animus, and discrimination remain a reality in these United States. Indeed, it is often an undercurrent [in] political rhetoric at the national and local level to this very day.
. . .

It seems to be the defense position that since action was taken as a result of their investigation, the public should not see the truth. Many political leaders and members of the public contend that racism and sexism are relics of the past. It is obvious from what [is] already known about the internal investigation that such denials are fantasy.

. . .

. . . I do not find that greater harm will result if I do not grant the stay. Quite the opposite. The public deserves to know the level of overt racism and/or sexism that was uncovered about the highest official or officials of the Elizabeth Police Department. To allow this matter to be further swept under the rug of public scrutiny would be to foster the illusion that racism and sexism are behind us.

UCPO and the City of Elizabeth have appealed the order, arguing that the public should not have access to the reports. The Appellate Division agreed to hear the appeal on an interlocutory basis and the case is currently pending. Oral argument was in May.

For more information about this post or OPRA in general, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 551-208-1283.

 

You only have 45 days from denial to file an OPRA lawsuit

As we have recently written, agencies currently do not have to comply with OPRA’s 7-day deadline due to COVID-19.  There is no such deadline relaxation for requestors to file OPRA lawsuits, however. Although there were prior orders by the Supreme Court that tolled such deadlines in March and April, those orders have now expired. Therefore, a person who receives a denial from a public agency must act very quickly. An OPRA suit must be filed within 45 calendar days from the date of the denial.

What should you do if an agency denies your request or otherwise violates OPRA?

The best course of action is to immediately speak to an OPRA attorney, who can review your denial and file a lawsuit on your behalf in Superior Court. Importantly, OPRA contains a fee-shifting provision that requires a public agency to pay a requestor’s legal fees when they prevail in court. This allows attorneys to represent you on a contingency basis, meaning there is no charge to you. The overwhelming majority of OPRA cases are handled with this fee-arrangement.

Typically, most OPRA lawsuits are resolved in Superior Court within 4-10 weeks either through settlement or a court order. This process is much faster than filing a complaint in the Government Records Council (GRC). Although the GRC is a free process, decisions are often not issued for two to three years. Therefore, we always recommend a Superior Court lawsuit.

Again, a requestor only has 45 calendar days to file an OPRA lawsuit. Given that it takes an attorney time to draft the lawsuit, it is best to act immediately after receiving a denial.

For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

Transparency Becomes COVID-19 Victim

As we previously wrote on this blog, the Legislature amended OPRA in mid-March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now and in the future, during a public health emergency, state of emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, a public agency no longer needs to respond to an OPRA request within seven business days.  Instead, an agency must only make “a reasonable effort, as the circumstances permit, to respond to a request for access to a government record within seven business days or as soon as possible thereafter.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(i)(2).

Journalists Expose Transparency Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a roadblock for the news media and those who seek information from the government. Reporters from NorthJersey.com, the Star Ledger, and the Associated Press collaborated and published three news stories today reporting about the serious lack of transparency in New Jersey during COVID-19. The articles discuss not only the State’s over-use of a confidentiality provision in the Emergency Health Powers Act to keep reporters from gaining important information about the State’s response to COVID-19, but also the fact that some counties and municipalities have essentially shut down their OPRA responses altogether. Other agencies are taking lengthy extensions, making it hard for reporters to report about local news. As NorthJersey.com wrote in its article:

Response to New Jersey’s amended law has been mixed, and some places continue to provide records in seven days. Others, like Jersey City, tell people not to expect a response at all.

“Due to the active state of emergency in relation to COVID-19, the City of Jersey City will not be able to respond to OPRA requests within seven (7) business days,” the city’s website says. “The City appreciates your patience during this difficult time.”

. . .

Dozens of government bodies from Hawthorne to Wildwood Crest have sought extensions and referenced or cited the pandemic as a reason, according to data provided by OPRAmachine, a website that helps residents submit record requests and tracks and analyzes the responses from public officials.

Delays range from a few days to weeks, and often cite closed municipal buildings and lack of staff. The website provides just a snapshot of the response, because most records requests across the state aren’t publicly tracked.

“This is very troublesome and a crisis unto itself,” said Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin. “We know from experience that secrecy inevitably leads to corruption, misconduct, waste and abuse. OPRA was enacted to permit the public to keep a watchful eye on government, but right now it can’t perform that function in many municipalities across this state.”

Today’s reporting follows an earlier article by New Brunswick Today, which also expressed concern about the State’s rush to amend OPRA and pointed out that public agencies have a long tradition of violating OPRA’s statutory deadlines in the past:

Advocates for transparency found the altered OPRA law confusing, given that records clerks often respond to requests within the seven business days only to make a request of their own: for an extension for more time to put together a substantive response.

Many government agencies have been known to play games with those who request records, asking for extension after extension, only to come back with a final decision that the request was improper or that the records cannot be released. Still others can’t seem to meet their own self-imposed timelines, and need to be reminded repeatedly about outstanding requests.

Guidance from the GRC

Recently, the Government Records Council took the extraordinary step of issuing a “Special Statement” on the amendment to OPRA, providing guidance on how it will determine whether an agency’s response is reasonable when receives denial of access complaints:

Please note that any dispute over extensions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis because OPRA does not include a limitation on requesting extensions. However, the GRC’s analysis of this issue has included recognition of “extenuating circumstances.” Those circumstances would include, but not be limited to, retrieval of records that are in storage or archived (especially if at a remote storage facility), conversion of records to another medium to accommodate the requestor, emergency closure of the public agency, or the public agency’s need to reallocate resources to a higher priority due to force majeure.

In closing, the GRC stresses that custodians within agencies operating under normal business hours during an emergency, even if closed to the public or working off-site, are obligated to respond to OPRA requests upon receipt in due course to the extent possible. Additionally, custodians should proactively advise the public (by website notification and/or other methods) if the method of transmission for OPRA requests has changed or been limited due to a state of emergency. Similarly, members of the public wishing to submit OPRA requests should contact the applicable public agency for updates on any limitations or disruptions affecting the OPRA process during a state of emergency.

Courts are, of course, free to disregard the GRC’s guidance and they have done so before. Nonetheless, the GRC’s Special Statement makes it clear that agencies that are open for business, even if working remotely, cannot simply ignore OPRA requests and must act reasonably to try to respond to them. It may be reasonable to request a extension for records that exist only in paper copy or that are locked away in storage somewhere, but some agencies are taking lengthy extensions even for electronic records that are easily retrievable.

For information about this article or public records issues, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

 

 

It’s Sunshine Week!

Sunshine Week, which runs from March 15 to March 21, 2020, is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. There are many ways that you can get involved–from filing OPRA requests, to writing a letter to the editor, to attending a public meeting. On this blog, we will write several times this week about transparency topics and success we have had recently shedding light on New Jersey government!

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To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

Access Begins With A Valid OPRA Request

Each month, we receive dozens of inquiries from people who are upset that their OPRA requests were denied. The most frequent basis for denial is that the request is invalid as written. Although there are records custodians who will happily work with the requestor to fulfill a less-than-perfect request, other custodians will quickly deny any request that does not strictly comply with OPRA’s requirements.  A valid OPRA request is thus the critical first step to obtaining public records and it is important to draft a request that follows some basic guidelines.

Guideline 1:  Do not ask questions in an OPRA request. Although people usually file OPRA requests because they have questions about some public issue, an agency has no obligation to answer those questions. An agency’s only obligation under OPRA is to produce non-exempt public records. Although elected public officials may answer questions via email or at a public meeting, an OPRA request must stick to requesting documents.

Guideline 2: Provide a reasonable timeframe. Public agencies are permitted to impose special service charges where a request requires an “extraordinary” amount of time to fulfill. Requestors must be mindful of how many documents will be responsive to the request and keep the timeframe relatively narrow.

Guideline 3: Seek identifiable records. A valid OPRA request seeks identifiable documents. A request that seeks “any and all records relating to the town’s animal control services” is overbroad because it leaves the custodian not knowing what the requestor wants. Instead, requestors must identify specific, such as “I seek the following records relating to the town’s animal control services: shared services agreements for 2018, the health inspection report for the animal shelter for 2018, and all settlement agreements involving the animal shelter for 2018-2019.”

Tip: There are several ways to learn about what types of records might exist:

  1. Look for statutes, regulations and ordinances on the topic. Many government operations must comply with specific provisions of law. Animal control, for example, is highly-regulated and there are state statutes and regulations that require animal shelters to maintain certain paperwork. Looking at the statutes and regulations will help identify some records that might exist.
  2. Look at records retention schedules. All agencies must comply with the State’s records retention laws. Although the records retention schedules do not list every record that must be maintained, they provide some information regarding the types of documents an agency might possess.
  3. Request agency policies. An agency’s written policies, standard operating procedures, or operating handbooks might provide information regarding the types of written reports employees are required to generate or the types of records the agency must keep.
  4. Ask the agency. Believe it or not, many government employees will happily help a requestor identify what record exists if they know what type of information the requestor is seeking.

Guideline 4State the preferred format and method of delivery. A request should indicate if the requestor wants the records to be sent to them via email for free or if they want to receive hard copies, which cost 5 cents per page. The request should indicate the preferred format, such as an Excel file or a PDF. Stating these preferences up front in the OPRA request avoids confusion.

Following these general guidelines will help requestors overcome the first hurdle and send the records custodian on the hunt for responsive government records.

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

 

“The Legal Implications of Governmental Social Media Use”

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin has published an article in the April 2019 issue of New Jersey Lawyer magazine, titled “The Legal Implications of Governmental Social Media Use.” A full copy of the article can be viewed here: