Dashcam Videos: To Release or Not Release?

In New Jersey, videos of deadly police shootings are required to be released to the public. In a recent ruling, a divided New Jersey Supreme Court held that a wider category of police videos do not need to be made available to the public.

In 2014, police officers pursued and arrested a driver who had allegedly eluded police attempting a traffic stop.  An officer’s decision to release and deploy a police dog led to an internal investigation resulting in criminal charges filed against the officer.  Mobile Video Recorders (MVRs), in-car dashboard cameras mounted in police vehicles, recorded the interaction between the driver and the police dog.

A member of the public made an Open Public Records Act (commonly referred to as “OPRA”) request for a copy of the video of the incident. OPRA, New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, provides transparency in the operation of government.  The act promotes the policy that government records should be accessible by all members of the public based upon the principle that government works best when its activities are well known to the public it serves.

A lawsuit followed when the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office objected and refused to authorize the release of the video, arguing that MVR recordings are within OPRA’s exception for criminal investigatory records.

In a 4-3 decision, the Court ruled that dashcam videos are criminal investigatory records and therefore exempt from OPRA.  The majority held that MVR recordings are not “required by law” within the meaning of OPRA, and, as criminal investigatory records, are not subject to disclosure through OPRA.

The case was remanded to determine if the dashcam video should be released under the common law right of access.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Albin wrote, “In the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding between the public and the police.”

With the close ruling, ever-growing desire for transparency in government, and previous government concession that under some circumstances police-recorded videos should be released, the issue as to whether all such videos should be released will continue to be the subject of debate and review.

The Attorneys at Rosenberg | Perry & Associates are familiar with the issues associated with the production of MVRs and other forms of pre-trial and pre-charge discovery.  If you or someone you know has an issue relating to the disclosure of MVR videos, we can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.