The Appellate Division recently addressed whether a municipality must publicly disclose security video footage captured by a stationary camera in a municipal building. The decision in Patricia Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield, highlights that technology is increasingly at the center of disputes involving the state’s Open Public Records Act.
The Facts of the Case
Plaintiff Patricia Gilleran made a written OPRA request for security video recordings from a stationary camera located on the back of the Township of Bloomfield’s municipal building. She explained that she was looking for video recordings of a specific person entering or leaving the building.
Bloomfield denied Gilleran’s request, citing N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. It claimed the recordings were not government records subject to disclosure under OPRA under the following exclusions:
- Emergency or security information or procedures for any buildings or facility which, if disclosed, would jeopardize security of the building or facility or persons therein; and
- Security measures and surveillance techniques which, if disclosed, would create a risk to the safety of persons, property, electronic data or software.
Gilleran filed a verified complaint in the Superior Court, Law Division, and obtained an order to show cause. In the court proceedings that followed, she argued that the recordings would reveal “high-level Democratic officials and other politicians visiting the Municipal Building on an almost daily basis and having an influence upon the Town Administrators.” Meanwhile, the Township maintained that disclosing the footage could compromise the safety of visitors to the Law Enforcement Building adjacent to Town Hall, including confidential informants, witnesses, domestic violence victims, and members of the public who seek to report crimes. Bloomfield further agued that disclosure would jeopardize the security measures it has taken for Town Hall and its adjacent parking area and police building.
The trial court found that the Township had violated OPRA. It specifically held that OPRA did not provide a blanket exemption from public disclosure for the contents of security camera recordings, and that Bloomfield failed to satisfy its burden of proving under the pertinent statutes that security-related exemptions applied in the circumstances of this case. The Township appealed.
The Court’s Decision
The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that “Bloomfield did not satisfy its burden of proving the requested recordings are exempt from disclosure through the general statements of its Administrator and its argument for a blanket exemption.”
In reaching its decision, the appeals court emphasized the trial court held correctly that the statutory exclusions do not provide a blanket OPRA exemption for recordings made from security cameras. Instead, courts must make individual determinations based on the specific facts and legal arguments presented.
Although the court did not reach the issue of whether OPRA imposes an obligation on a government agency to review requested video recordings in their entirety and to withhold only those parts that actually contain exempt information, it expressed doubt that the statute required Bloomfield to review the entire fourteen hours of recordings and to specify particular footage that contained confidential material.
According to the appeals court, “the Legislature could not have contemplated that the OPRA disclosure requirement would engage the services of government employees to view video recordings from stationary surveillance cameras for hours upon hours to determine whether they contain confidential or exempt material.”
For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.