CASE SUMMARY: Patricia Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield

Case Name: Patricia Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield
Docket Numbers: NJ Supreme Court 076114, Appellate Court A-15-15, Trial Court ESX-L-3459-14
County / Vicinage: Essex
Filing Date: May 14, 2014
Judge: Justice LaVecchia authored the NJ Supreme Court’s 4 to 2 majority decision.
Status: Remanded to the trial court for the resolving of the common law right-to-access claim.

 

Overview:

(Argued September 13, 2016 before the NJ Supreme Court; decided November 22, 2016.)

Patricia Gilleran, an open government and animal rights activist, requested initially fourteen-hours of footage (then two hours) from Bloomfield Township under OPRA and the common law right-to-access. The requested video was from a surveillance camera outside of the municipal building.

Bloomfield Township denied the request, citing OPRA’s exemption for “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.” (NJ Statute 47:1A-1)

Since that initial request and denial, another person requested security camera footage from the township under OPRA. The township provided the footage, though for a shorter time period than requested (15 minutes vs. an hour) and recorded by a different camera than requested.

In the Gilleran case, the trial and Appellate Courts ruled for release of at least some of the footage. However, the NJ Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and opined that the video was not disclosable under OPRA.

Justice LaVecchia wrote the high court’s majority decision:

The majority “…conclude that the broad brush of compelled release under OPRA, on demand for any or no reason, of the Township’s security system’s surveillance videotape product, revealing its capabilities and vulnerabilities, is contrary to the legislative intent[,] motivating OPRA’s exemptions based on security concerns. We hold that the videotape requested in this matter is not subject to public access under OPRA’s security exclusions.” The high court found that the legislature created a blanket exemption in OPRA for the ‘videotape product of any security camera’. The high court considers the common law right-to-access, not OPRA, the right basis for requesting the material yet left the common law right-to-access decision in this case to the trial court.

Chief Justice Rabner wrote the high court’s minority decision:

The minority opined that “OPRA does not say that all security footage is categorically exempt from public disclosure. The Legislature could have written that standard into the law but did not. Instead, OPRA requires public agencies to disclose government records unless a specific exception applies, and the relevant exceptions do not exempt all security footage from disclosure. According to the language of the statute, the Township must demonstrate that surveillance footage would jeopardize security or would create a risk to safety to be exempt from disclosure.” The minority cited OPRA’s various remedies open to but not utilized by Bloomfield, including “[negotiating] with Ms. Gilleran about the scope of the request” or “[assessing] a reasonable special service charge if satisfying the request involved an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort.” They mentioned the problems with common law right-to-access, most practically that, unlike OPRA, plaintiffs cannot recover attorney’s fees with that approach. Thus, the minority agreed with the Appellate Court that no blanket exemption exists for security camera footage.

The case has been remanded to the trial court to determine the common law right-to-access claim.

 

Case Documents:

Appellate Division decision
http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/courts/appellate/a5640-13.opn.html

NJ Supreme Court decision
http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/courts/supreme/a-15-15.opn.html

 

Articles/Posts:

Feb. 24, 2016
http://www.njspj.org/an-opra-victory-getting-pole-cam-video-from-bloomfield/

May 13, 2016
http://njopengovt.blogspot.com/2015/05/appeals-court-town-did-not-prove-that.html

Nov. 9, 2015
http://njfog.org/2015/11/09/security-camera-footage-opra-case-goes-to-nj-supreme-court/

Nov. 23, 2016
http://njopengovt.blogspot.com/2016/11/supreme-court-exempts-security-camera.html