Alerts and Updates

New Jersey Supreme Court Blocks Public Access to Police Dashcam Footage

August 16, 2018

In the wake of Lyndhurst, the Paff ruling opens the door a bit for further curtailing of OPRA disclosures.

On August 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, in a 4-3 decision, ruled that police dashboard camera videos are not automatically disclosable to the public under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

In Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, plaintiff John Paff, the operator of a public affairs website, sought motor vehicle report (MVR) recordings of an attempted car stop and subsequent high-speed chase that occurred in Barnegat Township, New Jersey, in 2014. Police charged the driver with eluding and resisting arrest. After a later internal affairs investigation, the arresting officer was charged with misconduct and assault, and indicted by a grand jury in early 2015.

The incident was the subject of news reports, and Paff requested the MVR recordings and copies of the summonses issued to the driver. Paff cited both the OPRA and common law as providing support for his requests.

The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO) released the copies of summonses, but declined to release the MVR recordings on several grounds, including that they were exempt from the OPRA due to their status as criminal investigatory records pertaining to an investigation in progress. Paff then filed a verified complaint and order to show cause as to the MVR recordings, and both the trial court and court of appeal ordered that the recordings be released. 

The OCPO then appealed to the Supreme Court, which disagreed and reversed, finding that the prosecutor’s office had sufficiently shown that the videos were criminal investigatory records. 

In the majority opinion written by Justice Anne Patterson, the Court distinguished its ruling from the 2017 decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), where it was found that dashcam videos could be disclosed pursuant to a formal request. The MVR recordings in Lyndhurst, as the majority explained, were released in compliance with a directive by the New Jersey Attorney General, which had the “force of law for police entities.”  In contrast, the MVR recordings sought by Paff were based upon the authority of a directive issued by Barnegat Township, which the Supreme Court found did not legally mandate their disclosure.

The Supreme Court went on to find that the investigation in progress exemption to the OPRA did not apply, reasoning that the OCPO had not sufficiently shown that disclosure of the MVR recordings would be inimical to the public interest. 

In the wake of Lyndhurst, the Paff ruling opens the door a bit for further curtailing of OPRA disclosures.

For More Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact Eric R. Breslin, Anjali Kulkarni, any of the attorneys in the White-Collar Criminal Defense, Corporate Investigations and Regulatory Compliance Practice Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

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