Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gibbsboro/Voorhees OPRA suit concluded

I've previously written about my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case against the Township of Voorhees and the Borough of Gibbsboro, both in Camden County. See my blog entries of October 12, 2011 and October 20, 2011.

To summarize, attorney Walter Luers and I sued both Voorhees and Gibbsboro for records arising out of a December 30, 2009 incident in which a uniformed Voorhees police officer, while in Gibbsboro behind the wheel of his parked patrol car, was slapped repeatedly by his wife. (If you haven't listened to the 911 calls made by the alarmed citizens who witnessed this incident, you might want to--they're interesting, to say the least.)

The case is now over, and since we won on most issues, the court ordered Voorhees to reimburse the court filing fees I paid plus Walter Luers' attorney fees of $3,375 plus a $675 "contingency enhancement" for a total of $4,443.57. The court's January 25, 2012 final order is on-line here.

One of the issues we did not win was disclosure of the Gibbsboro Police Department's report of this incident as well as some radio transmissions made by Voorhees police. Camden County Superior Court Assignment Judge Francis J. Orlando, Jr., after reviewing these records in camera, ruled that they were protected by an expungement order obtained by the officer's wife (i.e. the court expunged the assault charges and related records arising out of the incident).

Yet, the wife's expungement petition was filed after I submitted my OPRA request for the records. And, the court would have most likely ordered disclosure of those records but for the expungement order. The upshot is that Voorhees' and Gibbsboro's denial of the records, while probably unlawful initially, became lawful because the expungement order was entered prior to the hearing at which my OPRA rights were determined. So, sometimes a citizen's entitlement to a criminal case record depends upon whether the OPRA hearing occurs before the expungement hearing or vice versa. (It strikes me that something as important as the public's right to know shouldn't depend on something as fortuitous as the court's schedule.)

Walter and I did, however, win access to to a redacted version of the assaulted officer's "shift log" and the "chat log" that captures text messages sent to each other by Voorhees officers when the reports came in about a fellow officer being assaulted by his wife. (By comparing the four digit officer ID numbers in the shift log to those in the chat log, you can identify the officers who were chatting.)

All in all, this case raised some interesting questions regarding the relationship of expungement actions to OPRA rights as well as the efficacy and utility of expungement in a time when nearly everything is or can be accessible on the Internet.

It also raises questions as to the process through which information makes its way to the "police blotter" section of the local newspaper. When couples who aren't within the law enforcement community have a dispute and police are summoned, their names may be printed in the newspaper. (See, e.g. the March 30, 2011 entry here in the ManchesterPatch.) If one of the parties to a physical dispute is a police officer, I believe that the police are likely to withhold the incident from the newspapers.

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