Late last month, an Atlantic County Superior Court judge ruled that the Buena Vista Township must provide access to security camera footage of a public meeting room, pursuant to a request made under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The Facts of the Case
On July 29, 2014, Mark Demitroff requested access to a video recording of a multipurpose public space, which serves as a municipal courtroom and meeting room used by town agencies. The OPRA request was limited to a discrete period of time, namely, 10:30 to 11:30 PM, immediately following a Township Committee meeting on July 28, 2014. According to court documents, the camera in operation on the date and time requested is a single security camera mounted on the wall and is in plain view of anyone in the meeting room.
On August 7, 2014 the Township denied Demitroff’s request. In her email, Township Clerk, Lisa Tilton, advised that “The data you requested is exempt pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1(9) … and N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1(10).” She noted that, under OPRA, the following are exempted from the definition of public record:
- 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.
In court documents, Demitroff maintained that the video footage showed a conversation between committee members and town counsel regarding a proposed ordinance. Therefore, he alleged that failing to release the recording violated OPRA. Meanwhile, the Buena Vista Township contended that the video compromised security by revealing the steps taken to break down the room after the meeting, the location of a panic alarm, as well as the location of “blind spots” that the camera did not capture. It also stated that previous videos releases to the plaintiff were made in error.
Prior to the Order to Show Cause hearing, the court made an in camera review of the requested videotape to access the validity of the Buena Vista Township’s security concerns. The court also asked if Municipal Court Judge, Frank Raso, would provide a certification regarding his alleged safety concerns, but was advised by Assignment Judge Julio Mendez that he would not be submitting a certification.
The Court’s Decision
Judge Nelson Johnson ultimately concluded that the township must release the footage. In his decision, he acknowledged that there is no case law interpreting the OPRA exemptions at issue or applying these provisions to any dispute involving a request for government records that might involve security issues. Nonetheless, he did not share the township’s concerns about releasing the videotape.
As he explained in his opinion, “This Court’s review doesn’t arouse the concerns expressed by the Township. Ignoring the fact that several weeks earlier the Township released a similar such videotape to the Plaintiff, the Court is satisfied that there are no images contained in the video which would ‘jeopardize security of the [Township] building’ nor does it disclose any security techniques which have the potential to ‘create a risk to the safety of persons, property’ which the Township has a responsibility to protect.”
The court further concluded that nothing “problematic” could be gleaned from what was not shown in the recording. “From the Court’s perspective, there is nothing of any particular value to someone seeking to do harm to persons or the property of the Township,” the court wrote. Finally, Judge Johnson indicated that he would stay his opinion should the township wish to appeal.
For more information about this case or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.