The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division ruled on Wednesday that reports detailing police officers’ use of force against minors are subject to release under the state’s Open Public Records Act, provided that the minors’ names are redacted.
The appellate court reversed a lower court decision that dismissed a public records lawsuit brought by The Trentonian seeking reports from the arrest of a 16-year-old suspect in Ewing Township, New Jersey. In its decision, the appellate court held that redacting the name of juveniles from police Use of Force Reports, or UFRs, “satisfies both the public’s right to access important information regarding police conduct and a juvenile’s right to privacy.”
The Trentonian called the ruling a “landmark victory” that establishes a “Garden State precedent favoring transparency and open government.”
The ruling cites a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 22 media organizations, which argued that the reports should be subject to New Jersey’s public records law. Had the previous ruling been upheld, people seeking access to UFRs involving minors would have to file a formal motion in family court, adding time, cost and uncertainty to the process.
Attorneys for the Reporters Committee wrote in their brief that simply allowing the reports to be released with redactions under the Open Public Records Act would be beneficial for New Jersey journalists and the communities they serve.
“Public 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,” Reporters Committee attorneys wrote.
Countering the township’s central claim that New Jersey’s juvenile privacy law should exempt related UFRs from being released, the appellate court wrote that relying on that statute ignored the central purpose of the reports as a mechanism for public oversight over law enforcement.
“The heart of the matter is that a juvenile UFR is not a record pertaining to juveniles charged with delinquency,” the court wrote. “It is a record pertaining to police conduct.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Famartin