A New Jersey appellate court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the public has a right to see police dash-cam videos. Far more than simple fodder for shows like COPS, police dash and body cameras exist to both record evidence of potential crimes and to keep officers accountable and on their best behavior. As such, they should be – and are, in many places – publicly accessible. Thanks to the court’s decision, Lakewood, NJ citizen and volunteer police chaplain Rabbi Shabsi Ganzweig will finally get the video evidence from a 2013 traffic stop. Ganzweig wants to show whether Officer Jeremy Felder was wrongly charged with misconduct.
Jeremy Felder Accused of Doctoring Evidence
Here’s the back story: August 31, 2013, Lakewood, NJ Officer Jeremy Felder stopped someone for allegedly making an illegal left turn. Officer Felder let them go, but then, suspecting that the driver and passenger provided fake names, pulled the vehicle over again just moments later. During the second stop, Felder searched and found drugs and corresponding paraphernalia. He then issued a summons for possession and the illegal left turn – even though he decided to let the traffic violation slide initially.
Jeremy Felder didn’t turn on his dash cam for the first stop, but he did for the second, as did another officer who arrived on the scene of the second stop. According to prosecutors, Jeremy Felder doctored the evidence to cover up an illegal search – they charged him and dropped all charges against the driver and passenger. Felder was forced to resign in September 2015 and given one year of probation.
Prosecutors Deny a Citizen’s Request for Public Information
In hopes of discovering whether Jeremy Felder was truly guilty or if he had been wrongfully charged, Rabbi Shabsi Ganzweig, a volunteer chaplain for another department, requested access to the two dash-cam videos. The prosecutor’s office denied the request, but was eventually ordered to comply:
Rather than hand over the tapes from the two squad cars that were on the scene, the prosecutor’s office resisted. The four-year legal battle racked up $21,800 in legal fees for Rabbi Ganzweig, which a lower court ordered the prosecutor’s office to pay.
The prosecutor’s office challenged the ruling, and all parties agreed to wait for the appellate court’s decision.
Appellate Court Upholds the Ruling but Requires Further Record Development in the Case
Here’s the latest: Almost exactly four years after the initial traffic stop – the New Jersey appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision that the dash-cam videos were public record and therefore accessible to Rabbi Ganzweig or anyone else. They determined that two issues were in play:
- Whether the recordings constitute an official record legally required by law to be maintained, based on Lakewood police directives requiring the dash-cam filming of all traffic stops and
- Whether the reports should be provided, either pursuant to ORPA, J.S.A. 47:1A-3(b), or the common law right of access.
The prosecutors claim that the recording is part of a criminal investigation, which exempts it from public release. After all, Officer Felder only recorded the second stop – after he suspected a crime had been committed. However, Officer Felder’s failure to record the first stop as required by local regulations does not change the nature of the video he did take. The court sided with the majority from the lower court, relying on Judge Kennedy’s argument:
The dash-cam recordings were required to be made by a local police directive and thus do not fit the definition of “criminal investigatory records,” which need not be released.
They also agreed that the information must be made public under ORPA (Open Public Records Act), as the purpose of the act is to “maximize public knowledge about public affairs in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded process.” They also affirmed that common law criteria had been met, legitimizing Rabbi Ganzweig’s request along both avenues.
They then remanded the case, in part, back to the lower court to further develop the record. The New Jersey Supreme Court will soon hear a similar case, and if the lower court further explains certain issues, it could make it easier for them to decide.
All Information Dealing with Public Officials Should be Public
The bottom line: It’s understandable that some information should be held during ongoing investigations, but no records involving the actions of public officials – especially those with authority to take human life – should be withheld from the public indefinitely. The New Jersey Appellate Court was correct in the assessment that “the public’s legitimate interest in how its police officers conduct themselves constitutes a ‘particular interest’ in the information.”
However, this should have never been a question. Of course, all records of police interaction with the public should be both maintained and available. Such records protect everyone involved by revealing misconduct on anyone’s part. Additionally, there is the “right to know” question. Police officers can access an individual’s personal information and background simply by calling in a plate or driver’s license number during a traffic stop or at a roadblock. If officers can access all this – most of which is completely irrelevant to the typical traffic stop – without first having to show evidence of criminal activity, why then should they not be subject to the same? If the public enjoys no guarantee of privacy in these situations, why should the police?
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