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Pashman Stein Walder Hayden Notes Impact of Dash Cam Case on 2nd Anniversary of Landmark New Jersey Supreme Court Decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst

When Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partners CJ Griffin and Samuel J. Samaro received the unanimous decision in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Twp. of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), from the New Jersey Supreme Court on July 11, 2017, it was clear that this hard-fought matter was a landmark case that would have significant impact on transparency about the use of force by police in the state of New Jersey. The Court had granted access via the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and common law to police records and dash cam footage of a high-speed police chase and the fatal use of force on a black, male suspect, documents that the State had for more than two years refused to release.

It has been two years since the case set a precedent about the usage of OPRA in obtaining law enforcement records, dash cam footage, and Use of Force Reports. The case received national attention, as reporters applauded the affirmation of government transparency as a fundamental principal that trumps a police agency’s interest in keeping videos and reports secret. “In New Jersey, police officers are required to complete Use of Force Reports any time they use any amount of force against a suspect, whether it is twisting someone’s arm, using leg or wrist strikes, or using deadly force, which is any time a weapon is fired,” said Griffin. “The State sought to shield Use of Force Reports from the public permanently and keep the public from learning the identities of officers who use deadly force against citizens. Thankfully the Supreme Court made that information public.”

Griffin adds, “We continue to litigate for information on police shootings and conduct across the state. For example, an appeal is pending on whether a Use of Force Report relating to force used against a juvenile suspect is accessible via OPRA because it directly pertains to the conduct of the police officer, or, as the law enforcement agency counters, is exempt as juvenile records for delinquency crimes. We also continue to file numerous cases for access to body camera footage and other information about police-involved shootings.”

“At this two-year milestone,” Samaro states, “the Lyndhurst decision continues to be impactful. The unprecedented access to police reports has revealed misconduct details and use of force statistics that had never been viewed or analyzed before. We used solid legal arguments to obtain access to this information, and in doing so, opened a movement for greater transparency in our law enforcement agencies.”

As a direct result of the Lyndhurst decision, a public database was created of more than 70,000 Use of Force Reports, searchable by town and by specific officer. It has been reported that the State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is taking steps to improve police oversight, and that he is acting in part on the information provided in the Use of Force report that derived from the Lyndhurst decision.

Michael S. Stein, chair and managing partner of Pashman Stein, said, “The Lyndhurst case took a stand not only for the journalists who sought the truth about the fatal shooting of Kashad Ashford, but also for the nearly 30 amici curiae that participated in the litigation on behalf of diverse communities who want to ensure that the press and public have meaningful access to law enforcement records. At Pashman Stein, we are committed to taking on these high impact public interest cases, and to use advocacy to advance civil rights and government transparency.”

Judge rules North Arlington improperly imposed service charge for Facebook records

Last week, Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol issued an opinion finding that the Borough of North Arlington unlawfully imposed a special service charge upon a records requestor who sought records from the Borough’s Facebook pages.

The OPRA request at issue in Wronko v. North Arlington sought the list of individuals who had been banned from the Borough’s Facebook page, as well as a list of any words that had been censored and the list of page administrators. In response, the Borough insisted it needed to use an outside IT consultant to capture the screenshots necessary to fulfill the request, which would cost $200 for 2 hours of time.

OPRA permits a special service charge only in limited circumstances. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(d) provides that:

If a request is for a record: . . . requiring a substantial amount of manipulation or programming of information technology, the agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based on the cost for any extensive use of information technology, or for the labor cost of personnel providing the service, that is actually incurred by the agency or attributable to the agency for the programming, clerical, and supervisory assistance required, or both.

Otherwise, “electronic records and non-printed materials shall be provided free of charge.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(b)(1).

After hearing expert testimony from both parties, Judge Mizdol concluded “that production of the requested documents does not require a substantial amount of manipulation of information technology.”  The court found that capturing screenshots of the Facebook pages that contained the list of banned users and censored words “did not require any expertise in the field of information technology” and that any person with a “basic level of computer skills” would be able to fulfill the request by utilizing Facebook’s “Help” pages or a “simple Google search for ‘how to take a screenshot.'”

Importantly, the Court noted that it is imperative that agencies be able to fulfill modern day OPRA requests:

OPRA requests increasingly involve information technology in this digital age. Those hired to serve as an OPRA Records Custodian, thus, must have the requisite skills to reply to requests for government records located on such digital platforms. If a custodian does not have such skills, the municipality has the ability to rely on information technology experts or hire third party help. However, shifting costs related to same [to the requestor] requires the presence of a substantial amount of manipulation on information technology.

Unfortunately, the imposition of special service charges seems to be on the uptick. Many requestors may simply walk away from a request if the agency seeks to impose a significant fee, but it is possible to challenge the fees in court. In this case, Judge Mizdol ordered the agency to release the records without any fee and to pay the requestor’s legal fees.

 

Editorial: Lottery Winners Shouldn’t Be Anonymous

A new bill pending in the Senate, S-2267, directs the State Lottery Commission to amend its regulations so that the identities of lottery winners are not accessible under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The bill offers the winners of the lottery lifetime anonymity.

In 2013, former Governor Christie vetoed a similar bill that would have allowed lottery winners to remain anonymous for one year because he claimed it “could undermine the transparency that provides taxpayers confidence in the integrity of the Lottery and its games.” Similar bills have recently failed in other states, with Governor Cuomo recently vetoing such a bill in New York.

S-2267 raises major concerns. While his track record on transparency is notoriously pretty bad, on this issue Governor Christie was right.

Without disclosure of the name of the winner(s), what combats corruption?

What will prevent lottery insiders from rigging the game? (It has happened!)

What will prevent the person who purchased tickets for the office pool from collecting the cash anonymously and quietly resigning without telling co-workers that the office pool tickets won? (Similar things have happened!)

What will give lottery ticket purchasers confidence that the money was really distributed to a legitimate winner and that the Commission didn’t just make up a fake winner and pocket all the profits?

It’s true that “lottery fame” can be a hassle and that many winners describe winning as both the best and worst thing to happen to them. But, transparency is important. It guards against corruption and reassures lottery ticket purchasers that the money was properly awarded to a legitimate winner in a fair game.

Those who do not want the fame that comes from winning millions and millions of dollars should opt out of playing the game. Otherwise, when you buy a lottery ticket, you do so with the understanding that the public has a right to know who the lucky winner is.

CJ Griffin

It’s Sunshine Week!

This week is Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to promoting openness in government! In honor of Sunshine Week, we’re sharing the following resources which will help you shine a light on the government.

OPRA Presentation:

CJ Griffin will give an OPRA training in Nutley (Essex County) on March 12. Come meet CJ and learn about how you can use the Open Public Records Act to hold your government accountable.

New Jersey Resources:

New Jersey Transparency Center/YourMoney.NJ.Gov: This website is operated by the State of New Jersey and provides volume of data about State agencies and authorities. Want to know how much a certain state employee earns? You can look it up here, along it budgets, purchasing records, pension records, and more.

OPRAMachine.com: You can use this website to file directly to State, County, and local government agencies. The request will be posted on OPRA Machine, as well the agency’s response to your request. It is a great resource for tracking your requests and to help others see the data without having to file their own requests. If you want to file records requests in other states or with the federal government, you might want to check out a similar resource, MuckRock.

NJ Open Government Blog: This blog is operated by John Paff, a well-known transparency and open government advocate in New Jersey. Mr. Paff frequently blogs about recent OPRA lawsuits and judicial opinions. You might also find his other blog, NJ Civil Settlements, helpful. There, he posts about settlement agreements that government agencies have entered into, often resulting in a significant expenditure of tax dollars.

The Force Report: Want to know how many times the police officers in your town used physical force against another person and whether there were any racial disparities in the use of force? This database by NJ.com provides several years of data and is easy to navigate.

Protecting the Shield: Reporters from the Asbury Park Press spent two years working on this brilliant investigative series “to expose the deadly price the public pays when known bad cops remain on the streets.”

New Jersey Death Index: We helped Reclaim the Records gain access to New Jersey’s death index and they created this amazing free searchable database!

Imposing Personal Penalties Upon Those Who Knowingly Violate OPRA

Today, The Record published a story about the Borough of Wallington’s decision to suspend its Borough Clerk and file tenure charges against him with the state Department of Community Affairs. According to The Record, the Clerk is charged with “serious deficiencies,” including failing to comply with OPRA’s statutory time frames “43 times in 2018 and 36 times in 2017.”

PSWH Partner CJ Griffin is quoted in the article and discusses the potential liability both a public agency and its records custodian (or other employees) could face for violating OPRA.

Most OPRA cases involve an “ordinary” denial of access that occurred for one reason or the other. It may be that the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request applied the law incorrectly or that the law was unclear as to whether a record is exempt or not. A records requestor has a right to challenge such a denial and if the court agrees that the response was unlawful, the remedy is that the court will order the record to be released and require the public agency to pay the requestor’s reasonable attorneys’ fees. No public employee personally pays these attorneys’ fees, even if they were the ones who came to the wrong conclusion to withhold a government record from public access.

Beyond the “ordinary” OPRA case, a requestor can seek personal penalties against the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-11(a):

“[a] public official, officer, employee or custodian who knowingly and willfully violates [OPRA] . . . and is found to have unreasonably denied access under the totality of the circumstances, shall be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for an initial violation, $2,500 for a second violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation, and $5,000 for a third violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation.”

The fine is imposed upon the public official, officer, employee or custodian personally and the agency does not pay this fine.

What constitutes a knowing and willful violation of OPRA? There is not a lot of case law on this, but it is clear that in order for the denial to be considered willful the person responding to the request must have actual knowledge that their actions are unlawful.

Sunshine Week OPRA Seminar in Nutley

On Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at 7 p.m., PSWH Partner CJ Griffin will celebrate Sunshine Week by giving a free OPRA presentation at the Nutley Public Library. Come learn the nuts and bolts of filing an OPRA request so that you can make sure your town is transparent!

Griffin quoted in editorial about body cam lawsuit

The Trentonian published an editorial on January 15, 2019, calling for Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s administration to be more transparent. The editorial discusses a lawsuit filed on the newspaper’s behalf by CJ Griffin, a Partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden and Editor of the NJ OPRA Blog. Griffin, who is quoted in the editorial, sued for the newspaper to obtain access to a body camera recording which would confirm whether the Mayor’s Chief of Staff had falsely accused one of the Trentonian‘s reporters of stealing documents from his office. To read the editorial, learn about the litigation, and view the body camera recording, click here.

Unlike dash camera recordings, body camera recordings are “required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file” pursuant to Attorney General Directive 2015-1 and thus they cannot be exempt under OPRA’s criminal investigatory records exemption.

Court: Carteret Mayor’s Facebook Page is Subject to OPRA

In September 2018, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of long-time client Steven Wronko seeking the list of users that Carteret Mayor Daniel J. Reiman has banned from his Facebook page.

Carteret opposed the lawsuit, arguing that Mayor Reiman’s Facebook page was simply a personal page and that he has constitutional right to ban members of the public and a privacy interest in keeping the ban list secret.

We responded and provided over 200 pages of screenshots from the Mayor’s Facebook page which showed that Mayor Reiman used his Facebook page to declare weather emergencies and keep the public informed during severe weather events; to talk about redevelopment projects happening in the Borough; and to discuss personnel issues, such as the suspension of a police officer. We also showed that residents frequently posted on the Page about issues they were having with government services and Mayor Reiman or “staff” would respond to those inquiries and try to resolve the issues. Our brief is available here.

On January 11, 2019, the Honorable Alberto Rivas, A.J.S.C., heard oral arguments and found that Mayor Reiman’s Facebook page is subject to OPRA because it is used to conduct the Mayor’s official business. He adopted the fact-sensitive analysis used by Judge Mizdol in Larkin v. Glen Rock, a similar case we won last year.

Judge Rivas ordered Carteret to produce the ban list and to pay Mr. Wronko’s legal fees. A copy of the Order is here.

 

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

You Only Have 45 Days to Sue for an OPRA Violation

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.

What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?

The best course of action is to immediately speak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court.  Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:

  • You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, which likely agrees to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
  • A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
  • The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
  • The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
  • The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief
  • A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
  • If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the Court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.

Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.

For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.