The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the New Jersey State Police for a second time. The first lawsuit focuses on the police’s alleged failure to release information about the promotion policy. The second claims the state police refused to release the policy that states visitors to the Statehouse can’t wear political buttons. Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for ACLU-NJ, told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the lawsuits are to promote transparency in government, which isn’t present when information the public has a right to know isn’t released.
Shalom said after hearing people were stopped at the Statehouse for wearing political buttons, the ACLU filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to see what the state police policy stated. “They responded that they wouldn’t tell us the policy, that they weren’t required to tell us the policy. That it was a secret and it could impact public safety. And that seemed unreasonable to us,” he said. “After all, if you’re trying to tell the public how to behave, it would be fair to tell them how to behave. And so we sued to try to get those records.”
Representatives of the State Police are now saying the policy isn’t from them, that a separate entity created the rule. But Shalom said at the time of the request, the ACLU wasn’t told to look for the policy elsewhere. “They said, ‘We are unwilling to tell it to you,'” he said.
Shalom is unsure where the lawsuit will go from here, but he hopes to create an environment where public information is more readily available. “We have two different suits against the State Police for failing to provide us their policies under the Open Public Records Act. And what it comes down to is a basic question of transparency,” he said. “We believe that government is more accountable when it’s more transparent. And that’s what all of our open government work is about.”
While Shalom said the ACLU believes there might be some First Amendment implications to the policy forbidding political buttons in the Statehouse, the group hasn’t been able to see the rules and make a determination so he can’t speculate about what future action may come.
Shalom has also been involved in a study of prosecutorial conduct with Rutgers-Newark Professor George Thomas. The pair looked at prosecutors’ errors over a five-year period. “What we were trying to figure out was first of all, how prevalent was the problem and second of all, what happens with the prosecutors who are found to have errored,” Shalom said. “What we hoped was that if a court said you messed this up they’d learn from their mistakes.”
The errors ran the gamut, Shalom said, with most happening during summations. He said in some cases the errors impacted verdicts and sometimes they didn’t. “But in all cases it impacts the public’s confidence in the integrity of the process,” he said.
While Shalom said his research found Essex County had the most errors, he pointed out that that county also has the most trials so that’s expected. Most prosecutors statewide do a great job, Shalom said and if they do make a mistake, they learn from it. However, there are some exceptions.
“What we saw in our statewide survey was that there were eight prosecutors that during the period of our study, three or more times were told by courts that they had made mistakes,” Shalom said. “So that raises questions for us about the systems in place to ensure accountability.”