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Digital First Media v. Ewing Township

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  1. Freedom of Information

Amicus brief filed by attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 22 media organizations

Court: Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Date Filed: Sept. 6, 2019

Update: On Feb. 19, 2020, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reversed the decision of the Law Division, ruling that police Use of Force Reports involving minors can be released under the state’s public record law as long as any personal identifying information about the minors has been redacted. The appellate judges referenced the Reporters Committee’s brief in their opinion, summarizing part of the attorneys’ argument as follows: “Public access to UFRs regarding juvenile arrests will better serve the public by providing a measure of clarity and oversight in this important area.” 

Background: The Trentonian, a daily newspaper serving Trenton, New Jersey, and surrounding communities, requested police Use of Force Reports from the arrest of a 16-year-old in Ewing Township. Law enforcement personnel are required by state law to fill out these reports, and the same form is used regardless of the victim’s age. UFRs can generally be requested under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act.

However, Ewing Township denied The Trentonian’s request, citing a state law that aims to protect the identities of juvenile suspects by barring the release of certain government documents. The Trentonian filed a complaint, which was later dismissed by the Superior Court’s Law Division. The paper appealed, arguing that the public has a legitimate interest in obtaining UFRs and that privacy concerns could be assuaged by simply redacting the names of juvenile suspects.

Our position: The Superior Court’s Appellate Division should reverse the ruling of the Law Division, allowing for the release of UFRs involving minors as long as his or her identifying personal information is redacted.

  • The news media plays an essential role in helping the public understand and evaluate the criminal justice system; by ensuring access to law enforcement records, the Open Public Records Act is a vital tool for journalists.
  • Public access to government records relating to use of force and the treatment of children within the criminal justice system serves the public interest.

Quote: “[P]ublic access to redacted UFRs will enable members of the news media to tell important stories bearing directly on readers’ communities, while also providing oversight, fostering accountability, and building institutional trust.”

Related: A 2009 court case clarified that New Jersey’s Use of Force Reports are subject to release as public records, despite one township’s argument that the documents were part of ongoing criminal investigations and could therefore be withheld. The appeals court in that case emphasized that the reports are made for every use of force against an individual and are not created for the purpose of a particular investigation. “Whether the reports would ever be used in an investigation is purely speculative,” the court wrote.

A 2012 case in Arkansas concluded similarly. That state’s supreme court rejected a police department’s argument that the reports were covered by an exemption in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act for “employee evaluation and job performance records.”