Chief Justice Stuart Rabner

On May 23, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reversed a July 6, 2016 Appellate Division ruling that held that bidders who successfully purchased confiscated items at a county prosecutor’s auction had a reasonable expectation that their names and addresses would be withheld from the public.

In the ruling that was reversed, the Appellate Division weighed several factors, known as the “Doe factors,” (named after the 1995 Supreme Court case of Doe v. Poritz), that courts consider when determining whether a person’s privacy interests outweigh the public’s right to know under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).  After analyzing the Doe factors, the Appellate Division panel held that the auction purchasers had a reasonable expectation of privacy because if their names or addresses were disclosed, they might become “targets of theft.”

In today’s decision, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner noted that “OPRA does not contain a broad-based exception for the disclosure of names and home addresses that appear in government records.”  He wrote that OPRA protects a “citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy” (emphasis in original) and that in this case, the courts should not have even considered the Doe factors because officials at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, who opposed disclosure, “did not present a colorable claim in support of their privacy argument.” 

“[I]t was unreasonable for a buyer to expect that the information requested would remain private. If anything, the sale of government property at a public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for transparency. To guard against possible abuses, the public has a right to know what property was sold, at what price, and to whom,” Rabner wrote.

The non-profit corporation that I serve as Executive Director, Libertarians for Transparent Government, appeared as amicus curiae in this case and was ably represented by CJ Griffin of Hackensack.  The plaintiff, William J. Brennan, was represented by Donald F. Burke and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office was represented by Craig P. Bossong.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]