Tag Archives: opra requests

A3626 Will Hinder Transparency Over Police Shootings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

May An Agency Take Extensions to Respond?

OPRA provides that a public agency must grant access to a record “as soon as possible, but not later than 7 business days after receiving a request.” Public agencies also are required to make other records available “immediately,” which should mean that you can walk into town hall and obtain a copy or at least receive a copy within 24 hours.  Those records include “budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, including collective negotiations agreements and individual employment contracts, and public employee salary and overtime information.”

Most people who have filed OPRA requests, however, know that it very frequently takes much longer than 7 business days to get a government record.  Is this lawful?  The answer is that in most cases, yes, the public agency can take longer than 7 business days to produce the records so long as they notify you that they are doing so within the initial 7 business day timeframe.

OPRA specifically recognizes that some records may be in storage or archived, thus not readily available for access. In such a circumstance, an agency must advise you when the record will be available.  OPRA also provides that where a request would “substantially disrupt agency operations,” the agency must work with you to accommodate you and one frequent method of accommodating large requests is by seeking an extension of time to produce the records.

The Government Records Council and the Courts are fairly liberal with extension requests; however, there is a limit. Where there is no real justification for an agency taking multiple extensions and delaying access for weeks or months, it will be obvious to the GRC or the Court that the extensions are simply a mode of unreasonably delaying access to records.  Additionally, if an agency seeks an extension, they have a statutory obligation to produce the records by that date. If they do not produce them or otherwise respond by the date they provided, OPRA considers such to be a “deemed denial” of the request.

If you an agency has requested more than one extension or the extension date they provide seems unreasonable, it is wise to contact an OPRA attorney to assist you in gaining access to the records.  Remember, there are only 45 days to challenge an unlawful denial of an OPRA request.

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

 

 

Pashman Stein’s OPRA Cases Make News

Several of Pashman Stein’s OPRA cases have been covered extensively by the press lately. Here is a rundown of the coverage.

McClimate v. Cumberland County

The Daily Journal has covered McClimate v. Cumberland County, a case where Pashman Stein has filed a suit on behalf of a retired county employee who seeks records pertaining to her insurance coverage.  Despite repeated requests that the county provide the actual cost sheet that Horizon Blue Cross gave the county, the county instead insisted on providing only a summary chart that it created.  Ms. McClimate seeks the actual cost breakdown from Horizon so that she can determine whether the County is charging her the proper premium.

Paff v. Bayonne

The Jersey Journal recently covered Paff v. City of Bayonne, a case where Pashman Stein represented open government proponent John Paff in a quest for records pertaining to two settlement agreements.  Mr. Paff sought the agreements, or, in the event the agreements were not finalized, correspondence related to the settlement.  Bayonne denied the request, saying any such correspondence would be exempt pursuant to the attorney-client privilege.  After Mr. Paff filed his suit and argued that correspondence between adversaries is not privileged, Bayonne admitted that it should have stated that no such correspondence even existed.  Bayonne settled the case by admitting its error and paying Mr. Paff’s attorneys’ fees.

Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield

Patricia Gilleran’s security camera case continues to get news coverage.  Pashman Stein secured a victory for Ms. Gilleran in the trial court and in the Appellate Division, where both courts held that Ms. Gilleran was entitled to security footage from a camera outside Bloomfield’s municipal building.  The case is now pending in the Supreme Court.  Debbie Gallant wrote an article for the Society of Professional Journalists, detailing Ms. Gilleran’s case and the quest to obtain security camera footage from Bloomfield.   Bloomfield Life, Baristanet, and Essex News Daily have also recently covered Ms. Gilleran’s case.

Paff v. Moorestown

Numerous newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, are covering John Paff’s OPRA lawsuit against the Moorestown Township.  Mr. Paff filed suit to obtain minutes from an October 2012 meeting of the Moorestown Ethical Standards Board.  After Mr. Paff filed suit and argued that public access to minutes cannot be delayed for more than three years and that the agency should release the unapproved minutes, the Board rushed to convene a meeting to approve the 2012 minutes and then released them to Mr. Paff.

DeSanctis v. Borough of Belmar

More Monmouth Musings is covering a lawsuit Pashman Stein filed on behalf of Joy DeSanctis, who is seeking e-mail correspondence between Belmar officials and FEMA regarding Superstorm Sandy funds and the building of the pavilions.  Belmar refused to search for e-mail correspondence, insisting that DeSanctis needed to tell her the exact names of the Belmar officials or FEMA officials who were communicating with each other.  Ms. DeSanctis argues that she has no way of knowing such information, but that Belmar certainly knows and that her request is valid pursuant to Burke v. Brandes, 429 N.J. Super. 169 (2012).

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

Sunshine Week: Harry Scheeler

Continuing with our Sunshine Week theme, today’s blog focuses on Harry Scheeler.  Recently, CJ Griffin of Pashman Stein secured a victory on Mr. Scheeler’s behalf against the Office of the Governor, which had denied access to RSVP lists for those attending Governor Christie’s Town Halls.

Interview with Harry Scheeler:

  1. When and how did you initially become interested in the open government movement?

I first became interested in open government as a teenager. In the early 1990s the police department in my hometown was given cell phones for the purpose of calling judges for restraining orders and warrants. Over time you could see officers parked in their cars talking on the phone. When I requested copies of the bills they revealed many personal calls being made. At the time, the calls were billed per minute based on peak and off peak. The exposure of these bills in the court of public opinion put a stop to the abuse. The experience proved to me how powerful public oversight is.

  1. What types of government records or open government issues interest you most?

My main interest is testing the willingness of the government to turn over records to the public. When they don’t, I use litigation to enforce the law and compel compliance.

  1. How many OPRA requests do you file a year? How many times would you estimate the public agency violates OPRA? Of those, how many do you actually litigate?

I estimate I file about 100 requests per year. Of those requests there is a 50/50 chance there will be a violation. I attempt to correct the violation with the custodian but most of the time I am met with a bureaucratic attitude which leads to litigation quickly. I would estimate I average 20 lawsuits per year, most of which are filed with the GRC.

  1. If you could persuade the Legislature to amend OPRA, what would be your top suggestions?

I would ask for two things. First, mandatory fines for custodians who repeat a violation. Second, I would have the GRC randomly audit an agency’s compliance with OPRA to identify issues. Currently it appears custodians end up being trained by way of litigation started by activists such as myself.

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

Be Careful Citing Statutes in OPRA Requests

It is common that a requestor will seek a record that is required by law to be made.  Thinking that she is being helpful to the Records Custodian and making her request clearer, the requestor will often cite the particular law when making her request.  Requestors who do this should be careful, as Records Custodians will often deny the request on the basis that it requires them to perform “research.”

A good example of this issue occurred in the case Bart v. Passaic County Public Housing Agency, 406 N.J. Super. 445 (App. Div. 2009).  There, the requestor (Bart) sought “signs currently posted in conformance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(j),” which is a provision of OPRA that requires the public agency to post a sign telling requestors of their right to appeal the denial of an OPRA request.

The County responded and provided documents, but not the signage that Bart was seeking.  He filed a denial of access Complaint with the Government Records Council (GRC), which held that there was no violation because the request was invalid.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the GRC’s decision. The court held that a requestor must identify the records sought with “specificity” and that Bart’s request would have required the custodian to perform legal research to determine exactly what type of sign N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(j) required in order to provide a response to Bart’s request.

It is important to remember that custodians are only required to search their files, not perform research.  Even if a requestor feels that she is being more helpful by citing to a statute, or attempting to prove that the record must exist, be careful in citing to a statute. Rather, describe the document specifically, stating what type of record it is and what type of information it contains. If the custodian denies the request or says that such a record does not exist, then it would be proper to respond to the custodian, cite the statute, and state that the record therefore must exist.

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

Can I Request Attorney Bills?

Some public agencies routinely deny access to invoices for attorney services, claiming that such bills contain information protected by the attorney-client privilege.  OPRA, however, specifically mandates that these bills must be made available in response to an OPRA request.  The public bills may, however, “be redacted to remove any information protected by the attorney-client privilege.”

Recently, a public agency attempted to charge a requestor an hourly rate for its attorney’s time to review the legal bills and redact them for privileged information. The public agency required the requestor to pay for three hours of time at $150 per an hour.  The requestor filed suit and the court agreed with the requestor that such a charge was unlawful.  If the public agency needed counsel to review its responsive records, the court held that the public agency was required to bear that cost and not shift it to the requestor.

In addition to requesting the legal bills, it is common practice to also request the engagement/retainer letter and the resolution passed by the public body to approve the contract. This allows the requestor to verify that the rates being charged are authorized by the contract.

If you encounter a problem gaining access to legal invoices, it is imperative that you speak to an OPRA attorney immediately.  Lawsuits for wrongful denials of access to records must be filed within 45 days of the denial.

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