2020 Transparency Year in Review - NJ OPRA Blog
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.