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.
The OCPO denied requests by both plaintiffs for videos of specific traffic stops. The plaintiff in Ganzweig v. Township of Lakewood, et al. requested video of a stop that resulted in official misconduct charges against the officer, who was accused of illegally searching the vehicle and falsifying the police report. In Paff v. Ocean Co. Prosecutor’s Office, the plaintiff sought video of a stop that led to aggravated assault and official misconduct charges against the officer. The OCPO claimed that the videos were exempt from the OPRA as “criminal investigatory records.”
The plaintiffs filed suit under the OPRA and the common law right of access. New Jersey courts have held that the right of access applies to records the government is required to keep by law, provided that the person making the request establishes an interest in the records’ subject matter, and the state’s interest in preventing disclosure does not outweigh the requester’s rights.
The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in both cases on their OPRA claims, but it did not rule on the right of access claims. It found that the use of cameras was routine police procedure, which made them “government records.” It also found that the OCPO had failed to establish that the videos fit under any specific exemption to the OPRA. The OCPO may appeal the rulings.
If you have been arrested for, or charged with, DWI in New Jersey, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney, who can help you understand your constitutional and procedural rights and prepare the best possible defense. At Levow & Associates, we have committed our entire legal practice to defending DWI cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.
Opinion (PDF file), Ganzweig v. Township of Lakewood, et al, No. OCN-L-1291-14, Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, October 2, 2014
Opinion (PDF file), Paff v. Ocean Co. Prosecutor’s Office, No. OCN-L-1645-14, Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, October 2, 2014
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