TRENTON — The New Jersey Supreme Court narrowly ruled Monday that police dash camera video recordings are not available under state public records law.
In a 4-3 decision, the court found since there is no law mandating the release of police dash cam video, it is not subject to public disclosure.
The majority decision applies to instances where police force is used, but not deadly force. The state Attorney General’s Office issued a directive earlier this year that requires public release of police video where lethal force was used within 20 days.
The plaintiff, John Paff, a government accountability and transparency advocate, said he believed the court’s decision was a “poor one.” Paff said that since only law enforcement will have access to the videos — which are often used to either exonerate or substantiate claims of excessive force or unlawful motor vehicle stops — he was “not sure (of the purpose) of cameras anymore.”
“Police aren’t better off by not releasing the evidence,” Paff told The Press of Atlantic City on Monday. “People want to see evidence, they want to see it for themselves. They don’t want a government official telling them what to believe.”
The court case stems from an Open Public Records Act and common law request submitted by Paff, who sought video from a 2014 arrest in Barnegat Township, Ocean County. The township’s police chief had previously issued an order requiring officers to use the cameras in their vehicles. Paff argued that the chief’s directive, similar to an order issued by the state Attorney General, is law. The court’s majority opinion found the police chief’s directive does not carry the force of law.
Justice Barry T. Albin, in his dissenting opinion, argued that “in the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which will lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police.”
Media outlets, and private citizens, can still request police dash cam video under common law. New Jersey’s OPRA law requires release of records within seven business days, and that attorney’s fees be covered when a denied request is overturned, provisions that common law does not provide for.
The state top court’s decision overturns a ruling issued by a divided state appellate court, which upheld a lower court ruling. It comes a year after the state Supreme Court ruled dash camera video of fatal police shootings should be released.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.