Two recent rulings from a New Jersey court may allow defendants and the public to view police dashboard camera footage from traffic stops. The plaintiffs sought videos from specific stops, both involving alleged police misconduct, under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO), a defendant in both cases, refused to produce the footage. The judge ruled for the plaintiffs, which could allow the public to view police camera footage without the formal discovery process in a criminal case. For defendants charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), this means that they could see footage of their traffic stop much earlier in the case.
A New Jersey law signed by the governor in September makes cameras mandatory for all vehicles acquired by police departments after the law takes effect in March 2015. Many police departments already use dashboard cameras, and some are testing cameras worn by officers. These cameras present both advantages and disadvantages for the public. They are widely promoted as a means of preventing police abuses, but the presence of a camera recording every interaction between police and the public has also raised privacy concerns.
The cost of complying with open records requests is a significant factor. Police in Seattle, Washington considered scrapping a plan to equip officers with body cameras after receiving an anonymous request for daily police video updates, including written reports and license plate searches in addition to the videos themselves. He dropped his request upon reaching an unconventional deal with the police department, but the expense of making police videos available to the public could be a concern for other departments that could affect defendants’ rights to the footage. This was not an issue, however, in the two recent New Jersey court decisions. Continue reading →