Category Archives: OPRA Q&As

Using OPRA for Police Transparency in New Jersey

Transparency plays a critical role in  building trust between the police and the community. When members of the public trust the police, they are more likely to follow their commands, cooperate with criminal investigations, and even advocate for more funding for police. When police resist transparency, community trust is seriously undermined. Secrecy also makes it harder to hold police departments accountable and assure that they are complying with the law and meeting the high standards that we set for them. This is why we have been involved in dozens of cases involving police records, including landmark decisions such as North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017).

Although so many law enforcement records are sadly exempt from access under OPRA, something we hope the Legislature will fix, there are several records that are publicly accessible and that shed a light on policing and have the potential to expose misconduct or wrongdoing when it occurs.

We invite you to read our prior three-part blog series titled, “How to Monitor Police Agencies.” The series covers the following topics:

We also recommend reading the wonderful article written by Andrew Ford of the Asbury Park Press, published by ProPublica, titled “I Cover Cops as an Investigative Reporter. Here are Five Ways You Can Start Holding Your Department Accountable.”

If you have a question about this blog or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-270-4930.

 

Accessing Personnel Records

OPRA’s personnel records exemption, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, renders most personnel records generally exempt from access under OPRA. The exemption contains three exceptions, however.

Exception 1

The first exception provides that:

“an individual’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 provision obviously means that requests for an employee’s individual paystub or an agency’s weekly, monthly, or year-end payroll reports are available. Additionally, an agency must disclose each employee’s date of hire, title, position, salary, and date of separation. All of this information is important to know, as payroll is often one of the biggest expenditure in most agency budgets.

Within the next year, we should see resolution on what the phrase “date of separation and the reason therefor” means because the Supreme Court has granted certification in a case that asks the “name” of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” due to racially offensive behavior.  We believe this provision permits the public to learn about employees who engage in misconduct. For more information about that case and the issue the Supreme Court will be deciding, please read our prior blog.

Exception 2

The second exception 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 (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. Other courts have ruled similarly—employees can request their own personnel records, which includes emails that discuss their performance.

Exception 3:

The third exception 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.

In Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581 (2011), the Supreme Court held 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.”

In other words, if there is a certain training certificate, 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 access documents that prove whether or not the employee meets those requirements. Thus, because all police officers in New Jersey are required to take use of force trainings, the public is entitled to obtain documents proving those courses were taken. But, if an officer takes an optional course those records are not subject to OPRA, even if the agency paid for the training. (You can, of course, request a copy of the invoice or other financial documents that prove how much was spent).

 

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.

 

Vendor Activity Reports: A Helpful Tool for Tracking Spending

Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.

A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software.  The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.

Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:

Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”

Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request,  provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

CJ Griffin Interviewed for Marketplace Reports on NPR

CJ Griffin, a member of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden’s Media Law Group, was interviewed by Marketplace regarding a prior OPRA lawsuit she brought against the City of Newark seeking its Amazon HQ2 bid.

The public radio program, “What’s in Those Amazon HQ2 Bids? It’s Not Entirely Clear” by Renata Sago and Leila Goldstein, aired on Tuesday, November 6th.

“There’s hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, of tax dollars, at stake,” said CJ Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who argued the case. “That’s taxpayer money. When you give tax breaks, that impacts other people, so the public has a right to know.”

To listen to the story, click here

For more background on the lawsuit, click here.

Supreme Court Rules Dash Cams Pertaining to Criminal Investigations Are Not Subject to OPRA

This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a split decision (4-3) in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and once again ruled that dash camera videos that pertain to criminal investigations are not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

While the decision is a serious disappointment to transparency advocates, it does not actually change the status quo. Last year, in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the dash cam video of a police-involved deadly shooting was not subject to OPRA because there was no Attorney General (AG) guideline or other law (statute, regulation, etc.) that required it to be made or maintained.[1]

The Court made it clear in Lyndhurst, however, that dash camera videos of police shootings should generally be released under the common law right of access within a few days of an incident. The AG subsequently issued a directive requiring their release within 20 days.

In Lyndhurst, the Court specifically said that it was not answering the question presented by Paff (which was pending on the Court’s docket): whether a directive by a local chief of police could satisfy the “required by law” standard, just as an AG directive does. Thus, the Paff case became a new opportunity for transparency advocates to convince the Court that dash camera videos are accessible under OPRA.

Unfortunately, the Court rejected that argument and thus the law remains the same: dash camera videos are only available under the common law right of access. But, it was a very close decision (4-3). Justice Albin wrote a biting dissent, which Justice LaVecchia and Justice Timpone joined, concluding that “[i]n the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police.”

We think Justice Albin’s assessment is right and we hope that the Legislature or the Attorney General will accept his invitation for action:

In accordance with Lyndhurst, the Attorney General or the Legislature can undo the damage caused by today’s decision. The Attorney General can adopt a statewide policy that addresses whether and how police video recordings are made and maintained, as he did with Use of Force Reports.

The public — particularly marginalized communities — will have greater trust in the police when law enforcement activities are transparent.

The public pays for the dash cameras. Why can’t we see the videos?

What Videos are Still Available?

  • Dash Cam Videos Relating to Crimes: These are probably not available under OPRA in most circumstances, but generally should be available under the common law per Lyndhurst.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Police Using Deadly Force: Same. Also, AG Directive 2018-1 requires disclosure under the common law within 20 days if the video depicts a deadly shooting or an incident where police use force that results in “serious bodily injury.”
  • Dash Cam Videos of a DWI: A DWI is not a crime, so these should generally be available under OPRA.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Traffic Stops: These should generally be available, unless the traffic stop turns criminal.
  • Body Camera Videos: We think these should be subject to OPRA because an AG Guideline requires them to be maintained. At the same time, the AG Guideline attempts to exempt body cam videos relating to criminal investigations. We have this issue pending on appeal.
  • Security Camera Videos: The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that security camera videos are not subject to OPRA, but access should be granted under the common law where a person states a sufficient interest in the video.

PSWH partner CJ Griffin submitted a brief on behalf of several amicus curiae and participated in the nearly three-hour oral argument. Griffin has litigated dozens of police records cases, including Lyndhurst.  Contact CJ at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com


[1] A criminal investigatory record is a record that is 1) held by a law enforcement agency; 2) pertain to any criminal investigation and 3) are “not required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file.”

Court Issues Jail Death Records Opinion

On June 4, 2018, the Appellate Division issued an unpublished OPRA opinion titled Benedetto v Russo and Union County. While the opinion is not binding on lower courts because it is unpublished, we think it is helpful in several ways.

First, the case involves very important records: incident reports regarding suicide and suspicious deaths within a County Correctional Facility. Given the widespread coverage regarding several deaths in the Hudson County Jail recently, it is important that the public has access to information about these deaths and the conditions inside the jail.

In this case, Union County argued that the incident reports regarding jail deaths could not be disclosed because N.J.A.C. 10A:31-6.10(a)(4) exempts “[a]ny information relating to medical, psychiatric or psychological history, diagnosis, treatment or evaluation.”  Additionally, Union County argued that records relating to drug overdoses could not be disclosed pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:31-6.10(a)(3), which exempts a “record, which consists of any alcohol, drug or other substance abuse information, testing, assessment, evaluation, report, summary, history, recommendation or treatment.” Thus, Union County argued the incident reports were medical records and exempt pursuant to both of those regulations.

The trial court ruled that these exemptions did not apply. The Appellate Division affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that the requestor did not seek “inmate medical records,” but rather sought “incident reports.” This is an important ruling because public agencies frequently try to categorize a record as something it is not.

The second reason this case is important is because it reinforces the rule that public agencies cannot meet their burden of proving that a record is exempt simply by making factual assertions in legal briefs. Instead, public agencies must produce affidavits, certifications, or other “legally competent evidence” if it wishes to cite facts not in the record. Unsworn assertions by attorneys in a brief are simply not evidential.

Too often in an OPRA case, a public agency will produce no evidence whatsoever and will ask the trial court to accept what was argued in a brief or to make a ruling based on assumptions. This case confirmed that is not acceptable.

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

Are Survey Results Subject to OPRA?

Government agencies often distribute surveys to the public regarding various issues of public concern. Are the completed surveys subject to public access under OPRA? We think so and a court is being asked to decide.

Recently, we learned of an OPRA lawsuit filed by a requestor who seeks the results of a survey that was sent to residents of the Borough of Saddle River. The survey, which was sent by a local veterinarian who serves on the Borough’s Non-Lethal Deer Population Control Committee, asked residents whether they would allow access to their property to carry out a non-lethal deer management plan. When the requestor filed an OPRA request for the survey results, Saddle River denied the request, claiming that the results were ““inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative or deliberative material.”  We think the Saddle River got it wrong.

The deliberative process privilege applies only to inter-agency and intra-agency communications. The privilege is designed to keep internal policy-making documents confidential. Only internal documents (or documents between one government agency and another) that weigh one policy option over another; that make recommendations; or that offer opinions and advice fall within the privilege. Surveys that are completed by the general public are simply not “inter-agency” or “intra-agency” documents and thus the privilege cannot apply.

There may be times when OPRA’s privacy provision (or some other exemption) may apply to allow some information within a survey to be redacted, however. For example, we litigated Flom v. Allendale Board of Education, Docket No. BER-L-9208-15 (Law Div. Jan 7, 2016), where the requestor sought access to surveys that parents completed regarding their level of satisfaction with the district’s special education program. While the survey was intended to be completed anonymously, some parents put personal identifying information about their children on the forms. The court granted access to the survey results, but permitted the district to redact any information from the survey forms that would identify any student since students are entitled to heightened privacy.

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

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 3

In this third part of our series about using OPRA to monitor police agencies, we will discuss how to ensure that individual officers meet the qualifications for their duty assignments and are properly trained.

Generally, personnel records are exempt from access under OPRA. However, we previously blogged about the personnel records exemption and explained that there are three exceptions. The third exception provides that the following records are accessible:

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.]

This means that you are able to obtain any records which prove that an employee meets the requirements of the job.

For police officers, this means that you can obtain training certificates for courses that they are required to take in order to take in order to be police officers. Among the required courses that every police officer in New Jersey must complete include:

  • basic police academy training
  • annual firearms re-qualification training
  • use of force training
  • vehicular pursuit training
  • domestic violence training
  • cultural diversity training
  • bias intimidation crimes training

Other courses may be necessary in order for a police officer to be promoted or to hold a specific duty assignment. Some of these courses include:

  • Breathalyzer training courses and re-certification for those who operate breathalyzers
  • 911 dispatcher and call-taker training and re-certification for those who work in 911 call centers
  • K-9 training for those who work with canine partners
  • Internal Affairs training for those in the unit

Any of these records can be requested and will help the public ensure that officers are properly trained and qualified for the positions that they hold.

Sample OPRA requests:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the Officer Jones’ use of force training certificates for years 2017-2020.”
    “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the annual firearms re-certification certificates for all of the police officers in your police department for the year 2019.”

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