Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New Jersey Court records that cost $6.15 in 2015 cost $770 in 2016.

Update: 10/22/16:  I received an e-mail from Carole Cummings informing me that copies of all generated reports are "being centrally filled by the Superior Court Clerk's Office" and that the $770 charge "is consistent with the report pricing standards of the Judiciary."
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I encountered a bit of sticker shock yesterday when I received a $770 quote from the Clerk of the Superior Court to produce municipal court reports that I routinely purchased for less than ten dollars in 2015.  I use these reports to identify prosecutions under municipal code provisions of questionable legality--usually "disorderly conduct" or "loitering" codes.  And, I have used these prosecutions over the years to convince several municipal councils to repeal the outdated code provisions.  Unless I am able to find an inexpensive way to get these reports, I will have to cease my advocacy in this area.

Following is my letter and records requests to Carole Cummings, the Trial Court Administrator for the Camden Vicinage.  Ms. Cummings has always been responsive and helpful in the past and I hope that she will come through for me this time as well.

October 11, 2016

Carole E. Cummings
Trial Court Administrator, Camden Vicinage
101 South 5th Street
Camden NJ, 08103
via e-mail only

Dear Ms. Cummings:

I have placed on-line my records request form and what follows is my reason for submitting it.  Also on-line is a file of Bates numbered exhibits which are referenced below.  In addition to responding to my records request, I would appreciate it if you could provide me with any other information that will enlighten me on the Judiciary's records fulfillment procedure.

By way of background, I submitted a records request (Bates No. 1) on July 28, 2016 to the Bellmawr (Camden County) Municipal Court for that court's "NJ Automated Complaint System Law Enforcement Disposition Reports" for a three-month period beginning Friday, April 22, 2016 and ending Friday, July 22, 2016.  Within the same request I also sought the Bellmawr court's "most recently updated 'Local ACS List'."

On August 15, 2016, I considered the Bellmawr Court's failure to respond to my request a denial and filed an appeal (Bates No. 2) with your office in accordance with R.1:38-10(b). By letter dated August 17, 2016 (Bates No. 3), you informed me that my request had "been forwarded to the Superior Court Clerk's Office for resolution."  After about six weeks, I received an October 3, 2016 response (Bates No. 4) from the Superior Court Clerk's office in Trenton advising me that it will cost $770 to fulfill my request.

There are two areas that perplex me.  First, why does the Superior Court in Trenton now handle records requests that were previously handled by the municipal courts?  Second, why does fulfillment of this request cost more than one hundred times what previous, similar requests have cost?

Over the past several years, I have ordered the same reports that I requested from Bellmawr from dozens of municipal courts across New Jersey.  By using these reports, I am able to identify cases where defendants have been prosecuted for violating municipal code provisions that are unconstitutional and/or preempted by the New Jersey Criminal Code.  Being able to prove that such prosecutions have recently occurred enables me, through my position as Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Preempted Ordinance Repeal Project, to advocate for repeal of the offending municipal code provisions. 

For example, my April 24, 2015 letter to Woodbridge (Bates No. 5 - 7) argued that the Township's Disorderly Conduct code (Bates No. 10), which created constitutionally dubious offenses such as "us[ing] loud, abusive or offensive remarks" in public, was being actively enforced by the local police department and prosecuted by the municipal prosecutor.  My proof that recent enforcement and prosecution had occurred consisted of pages from the "NJ Automated Complaint System Law Enforcement Disposition Report" (Bates No. 9) and "Local ACS List" (Bates No. 8) that I had previously obtained by way of a records request to the Woodbridge Municipal Court.  These reports, which are are the same reports that I had requested from the Bellmawr, showed that Code ¶ 30-3 was an offense still recognized by the Woodbridge Court and that the recipient of Summons No. S-2014-002630 had been convicted on March 2, 2015 of violating ¶¶ 3-30.1 and assessed $533 in fines and costs.  This was but one of dozens of similar cases that the reports revealed.  This evidence, when presented to the Woodbridge Township Council, caused the Council to repeal the Disorderly Conduct code.  See, the Home News and Tribune's June 16, 2015 article "Loitering not against the law in Woodbridge anymore."

My ability to effectively advocate in this manner depends on the prompt availability of the "NJ Automated Complaint System Law Enforcement Disposition Reports" and "Local ACS Lists" at a reasonable cost.  Up until recently, I was able to obtain these necessary reports directly from the local municipal court administrator for $.05 per page.  As evidenced by Bates No. 11, the one-hundred or so pages of reports that I had received from Woodbridge cost me $6.15 in copying and postage costs.  Other than these reports, I know of no way to identify recent enforcement of preempted and/or unconstitutional municipal code provisions. And, my experience has shown that absent an example of recent enforcement, municipal governments are apt to claim that there is no need for repeal because the offending code provision is no longer being enforced.

I am not sure why the rules changed so that I can no longer obtain these reports from the local municipal courts.  I also do not understand why reports that cost $6.15 in 2015 are cost $770 in 2016.  I am hoping that your response to the enclosed records request will help me understand what happened and provide a path by which I can continue to obtain these records for a reasonable fee.

Thank you for your attention and I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.

Very truly yours,

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