In any prosecution by the state, it is critically important that a defendant be able to review any and all evidence that could be used against them in court. A long series of court rulings has established defendants’ right to this evidence. Unfortunately, prosecutors and police are not always forthcoming with evidence. In driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, footage from police dashboard cameras, also known as mobile video recorders (MVRs), can sometimes help a defendant rebut the state’s charges. According to a ruling issued by the New Jersey Appellate Division in late June 2016, Paff v. Ocean Cnty. Prosecutor’s Office, these videos are part of the public record. This ruling could be a double-edged sword for DWI defendants, however. They might be able to access their own MVR footage more easily, but so can anyone else.
The common-law right of access, as described by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nixon v. Warner Comms. in 1978, holds that the public has “a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents.” Statutes like the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) also address public access to government records. This is different from a defendant’s right to information specific to their case. In some situations, the government may have a legitimate reason to withhold information from the general public that they must provide to a defendant. Since the Ocean County ruling expands the public’s right to obtain information from the government, it is reasonable to conclude that it can benefit people charged with DWI and other offenses.
The downside to the ruling is that making MVR footage available to the public has implications for DWI defendants’ privacy rights. Footage of a traffic stop, potentially including field sobriety tests, could cause embarrassment or other negative outcomes. This is especially worrisome if video footage is released while a DWI case is still pending, or after an acquittal or a dismissal of charges.