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OPRA and the Right to Privacy

January 3, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law, Recent News

A recent ruling from a judge in New Jersey states that people who have been the subject of a police investigation have a right to keep their records private, if they were never charged with criminal activity. This right to privacy overrules any records exposed under the public right of access, criminal attorneys in New Jersey say, and the judge’s ruling will ensure that the character of persons involved in an investigation without a criminal record will not be ruined by a public inquiry into state records. 

In North Jersey Media Group v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, Bergen County Assignment Judge Peter Doyne ruled that a request made by a reporter for the Community News, a faction of the Media Group, violated the right a person has to keep non-criminal records from public view. Katherine Milsop, the reporter, requested all records on file in the Bergen County offices that detailed complaints or investigations involving Leo Butler, the Roman Catholic priest who presides over the Immaculate Conception Church in Norwood, including any recorded calls to emergency services or conversations with Butler or anyone from the Archdiocese.

When the County offices refused to hand over documents, or to even confirm whether they had any records on file that named Butler as a subject in an investigation, the North Jersey Media Group sued for the records. The Group claimed that, according to the state’s Open Public Records Act, Milsop had a right to view criminal investigation records. The prosecutor’s office provided to Judge Doyne sealed envelopes that contained a list of privileged documents, but continued to deny the Group access to these items. Doyne also ruled that the documents were confidential, and disclosure to the reporter would be inappropriate, since Butler did not have a criminal record of any kind. 

According to the Open Public Records Act, or OPRA, N.J.S. 47:1A-1, New Jersey policy dictates that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this state, with certain exceptions, for the protection of the public interest, and any limitations on the right of access…shall be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.” But this statute allows for exceptions such as the ruling issued by Doyne. In cases where public access to police records would unnecessarily damage a person’s reputation or harm their good name, a right to privacy is granted when the person in question was not charged with a crime. 

Criminal attorneys in New Jersey say that it is not uncommon for reporters, investigators, or suspicious inquirers to use the OPRA to obtain records simply for the purpose of ruining someone else’s name in the community. Although the OPRA is intended to keep the public safe and appraised of potential threats to their safety and wellbeing, subjects of investigation do not pose such a threat, and cannot be exposed in the same way as a criminal record can justifiably be made public. 

Doyle’s ruling protects innocent persons in New Jersey from unnecessary censure or scrutiny from the public eye. The criminal attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, represent anyone whose rights have been violated based on this interpretation of the OPRA. 

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