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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
 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.”