By Michael Hill
John Paff of the Libertarian Party scores it a big win for open government.
“I think this is a trend toward disclosure. I think that we’re on the right side of this and the prosecutor’s office is battling an uphill battle,” Paff said.
Two state court rulings tell the Ocean County prosecutor and police here to release police car dashcam videos as if they’re any other government record.
“Release of dashcam video, frankly, makes everyone safer. If police officers know they’re being watched, they tend to be better behaved and when citizens know their actions are being recorded, they tend to behave better,” said Walter Luers, president of New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.
“There’s no question in my mind that these videos should be released to the public. Absolutely! The question is when,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato.
The Ocean County prosecutor had rejected Paff’s request for dashcam video reportedly showing a police officer sicking his dog on a woman at a traffic stop. The officer now faces criminal charges.
Prosecutors argue the video in that case and another one are part of their investigatory record.
But state Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso ruled, “The contemporaneous recording of a traffic stop by a police dashcam that was required to be maintained and activated is not exempt as a criminal investigatory record.”
Grasso said, “The police dashcam captures nothing more than that which would be visible to members of the public or other motorists in the vicinity of the stop.”
The judge also decided New Jersey rules do “not retroactively render an otherwise open government record confidential because it may later form the basis of an internal affairs investigation.”
“I think a lot of people have suspicions that prosecutors’ offices sort of side with police and to some extent white wash things that are happening as opposed to telling the truth,” said Paff.
Advocates for open government applaud rulings but the Ocean County prosecutor says not so fast, it could have the opposite effect in the long run. So he plans to appeal the rulings.
“Once it’s released and it’s let out to the public, that defendant now is going to come in and say that it’s prejudicial, that he can’t get a fair trial, that the venue has been poisoned and that we’re now going to have arguments that we wouldn’t have had we waited a little longer to release the video,” Coronato said.
“It’s a view of the action and that’s neutral and that doesn’t hurt to disclose that doesn’t hurt the investigation,” said Luers.
Luers is the president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. He says he would use these rulings to argue the same for when police begin wearing body cameras. And Prosecutor Coronato says he would have the same objections.
For now, the dashcam video rulings apply to Ocean County, but if an appeals court upholds them, they would apply statewide and likely lead to a state Supreme Court battle.