NJ Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Police Can Deny Records Requests in Criminal Cases

The NJ Supreme Court is set to decide an important question this year: How much discretion should local police departments be given when it comes to deciding whether to release documents under New Jersey public records laws?

The case, North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst, stems from a police shooting in Bergen County, NJ. A media company sought records from the police investigation into the shooting, but the Lyndhurst Police Department denied the request. This prompted the media organization to file suit.

It is likely that the NJ Supreme Court’s decision, which should come later this year, will have serious consequences for media organizations that look to keep the public informed about police investigations and other criminal matters.

The Facts of the Case

In September 2014, a Newark NJ man allegedly stole an SUV and then led police officers on a high-speed pursuit through a number of New Jersey towns. The chase ended with police officers fatally shooting the suspect. There was then an investigation into the incident, with a Bergen County grand jury later finding that the police shooting was justified.

Shortly after news of the shooting first broke, two NJ newspapers, The Record and the South Bergenite, filed a records request to get reports from the Lyndhurst police dispatcher, as well as the daily activity log, audio recordings, video recordings, and use-of-force reports.

However, instead of granting the records request, the Lyndhurst Police Department used an exemption to the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and denied the document request. The legal exemption applies to records that are related to police investigations.

The denial prompted the North Jersey Media Group, the media organization that owns the two newspapers seeking the records, to file a lawsuit. A Bergen County Superior Court judge later ordered Lyndhurst police to release the records; however, a New Jersey appeals panel subsequently ruled in favor of the exemption.

The Debate over Police Accountability

Several news organizations and civil liberties groups have already come out in support of a broad rule that would force NJ police departments to release information like the records in this case. For example, the ACLU filed an amicus brief in favor of the media organization plaintiff in the case.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in New Jersey have taken the opposite stance, arguing that it is critical to the integrity of ongoing police investigations that certain records be withheld from the public. After all, said multiple NJ police department leaders, the potential jury pool will be drawn from readers of the news publications.

Now this case, which could have a profound effect on police accountability in all kinds of criminal matters, including drug crimes and weapons offenses, will be decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

For more information about this case, see the following article: What police records should be public? Supreme Court to decide