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October 09, 2015

N.J. judge: Police videos may soon be 'shielded in secrecy'

Despite increase in body cameras and dash cameras, appellate court ruling limits public access

Public access to footage from police dashboard cameras and body cameras in New Jersey may be in jeopardy if an appellate court ruling in June is allowed to stand, warns Middlesex County state Superior Court Judge Travis Francis.

The ruling pertains to an exemption of police video recordings under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which the appellate court reviewed in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst. In that case, The Record newspaper in Bergen County sought videos in the fatal police shooting of Kashad Ashford after a high-speed chase last September near the Lyndhurst-Rutherford border.

New Jersey courts have long recognized dashcam videos as public records, but in June a three-judge Appellate Division court reversed a ruling that ordered multiple police agencies to turn over videos related to the crash. The appellate court determined that the trial court "misinterpreted OPRA's provisions governing criminal investigatory records" and added that "releasing certain requested documents would undermine its investigation and be inimical to the public interest."

Judge Francis denounced the ruling after he was asked to reconsider earlier decisions that would have granted an activist access to 10 years of video, according to

“This court muses at the notion the OPRA was created to assist those trying to keep a watchful eye over the police in their general duties but If an interaction is documented on an MVR or body camera, the same would be considered an exempt criminal investigatory record,” Francis writes in his Sept. 21 decision.
“Now, the news or any inquisitive citizen must understand what happened in an event through a press release, as access to these MVRs (Motor Vehicle Recordings) is forever barred from OPRA related public access.”

Despite efforts to broaden the use of police body cameras amid heightened scrutiny of law enforcement nationwide, Francis says the ruling could also bar state residents and news media from obtaining video from other agencies – such as the Division of Taxation or the Department of Environmental Protection – that would keep information from the public.

The State Attorney General's office, which in July released a directive on the use of body cameras, supports the appellate court ruling and leaves discretion on OPRA requests to prosecutors. It said that the ruling “preserves and protects the integrity of judicial proceedings, including the rights afforded to criminal defendants, and recognizes that law enforcement agencies must be able to conduct a thorough and effective investigation unhindered by the premature public release of investigative materials.”

Civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers say the ruling is a cause for concern, however, particularly in light of incidents including the death of Eric Garner in New York City, the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, and in New Jersey, the fatal shooting of 36-year-old Jerame Reid after a traffic stop in Bridgeton last December, some of which was captured and released in a dashcam video.

The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey, Ed Barocas, said the ruling could shift accountability for oversight in ways that become detrimental to the public.

“If you take away the public’s ability to access this information, including information about themselves on these videos, or leave complete discretion up to the prosecutors, then we will simply slip back to police policing themselves, which has not worked.”

County prosecutors and police chiefs from across New Jersey are expected to meet later in October to discuss these topics with the Attorney General's Office.