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NJ Open Government Notes

New Jersey Supreme Court agrees to decide whether the identity of trooper who left his or her position for “questionable associations” and “racially offensive behavior” can be withheld from the public.

Each year, the Division of State Police (NJSP) issues a public report that summarizes disciplinary cases against troopers processed through its internal affairs system.  Page 13 of the 2015 report noted that an unnamed trooper was “separate[d] from employment” for “having questionable associations, engaging in racially offensive behavior and publicly discussing police patrol procedures.”  After reading that report on November 28, 2016, I caused Libertarians for Transparent Government, Inc. (LFTG), a non-profit that I serve as executive director, to submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the trooper’s “name, title, date of separation and reason therefor.”

The NJSP denied the request claiming that internal affairs and personnel records are confidential.  In February 2017, OPRA lawyer CJ Griffin filed a civil complaint on LFTG’s behalf in Mercer County Superior Court that challenged the NJSP’s denial.  Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled against LFTG on July 20, 2017 and a two-judge Appellate División panel affirmed Judge Jacobson’s ruling on May 20, 2019.  On October 10, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certification meaning that New Jersey’s highest court will review the lower courts’ rulings.

In my view, the public has a right to know the identities of police officers who are forced to leave their positions because of misconduct.  As Griffin points out in her brief to the Supreme Court, without knowing this Trooper’s identity, the public cannot determine whether this trooper was fired or allowed to resign in good standing or whether he or she has moved on to work for another police department. 

As the Supreme Court observed in 2012, one of OPRA’s chief purposes is to “enable[] citizens and the media [to] play a watchful role in curbing wasteful government spending and guarding against corruption and misconduct.”  If this purpose is to have any real meaning, the public has to be allowed to know the identity of a police officer who was separated from employment after a finding of misconduct.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project