NJ Appeals Court Opens Avenue to Police Dashcam Videos
A divided Appellate Division panel has ruled that the public can access videos recorded by police dashboard cameras.
In a 2-1 unpublished decision Monday, the majority said a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court could mean a police dashcam is considered a public record, available for release. However, the appeals court left open the question of whether documents stemming from the recording could also be released.
The majority in Ganzweis v. Lakewood largely affirmed a decision from October by Ocean County Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso, who ruled the footage does not fall within the list of exemptions in the Open Public Records Act that allows government officials to keep certain records from public view.
But Appellate Division Judges Ellen Koblitz and Thomas Sumners Jr. said the case should be remanded to determine whether the plaintiff seeking the dashcam recordings, Shabsi Ganzweis, should be allowed access to reports written about the episode in question or be entitled to counsel fees.
Koblitz and Sumners said lower courts are still waiting for the state Supreme Court to determine whether reports and documents related to specific dashcam videos are records that are required to be kept by law, and thus subject to OPRA.
Appellate Division Judge Susan Reisner, in a partial dissent, said the record should not be open to public view since there are not statutes or state government directives that say those are required to be kept by law.
In this case, Ganzweis sought footage taken from the dashcam of a Lakewood police officer who was charged with official misconduct following a traffic stop—from which he charged a driver and passenger with drug-related offenses that were later dropped.
Grasso agreed that the dashcam video should be made public.
“OPRA manifests the state’s public policy of transparency in government,” Grasso said. “The court finds that the contemporaneous recording of a traffic stop by a police dash cam that was required to be maintained and activated is not exempt.”
Koblitz and Sumners largely agreed in their majority ruling.
“[I]t could be argued that the public’s legitimate interest in how its police officers conduct themselves constitutes a ‘particular interest’ in that information, well beyond that of idle curiosity, requiring disclosure under the common law.
“Rather than militate towards secrecy, ‘the public interest’ in an investigation into police malfeasance may well support disclosure,” the majority said.
The majority noted that the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office issued a press release about the incident, which may impact how much information may be ordered to be made public under OPRA. The majority said a trial judge should also review an award of $22,000 in counsel fees to Ganzweis and her attorney, Clinton solo Walter Luers.
Luers said the Supreme Court will have to determine whether dashcam videos and subsequent reports are documents that, under OPRA’s guidelines, are required to be kept by law, since Lakewood, at the time, had only issued a directive that all traffic stops be recorded.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.