UPDATE (9/28/2015) – The decision was for the defendant in this case, unfortunately. Public access to up-to-date court records remains an area that needs improvement.
The Promis/Gavel System is the state’s criminal case database. There is limited information available online or using a public access terminal at a courthouse. Further, the public portal may not list all cases or be up-to-date, making it difficult for private citizens to learn about important criminal cases, keep track of frequent changes in court schedules, or know outcomes. In contrast, court and law enforcement personnel have access to full information and computer report runs. County prosecutors, for example, have daily access to customized reports showing court schedule changes and case statuses.
This inequity has been a source of frustration for journalists and citizens, alike. Some open government activists, in particular, monitor court filings for matters of public interest or matters involving possible wrongdoing by government officials, for example. These public advocacy efforts are thwarted by an inability to obtain complete, up-to-date court records.
In an effort to expand public access, well-known activist John Paff has brought suit against the Middlesex County Prosecutor to obtain the Promis/Gavel reports. The case addresses the question of whether the reports — both those already produced and those capable of being run — are accessible by the public under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
There are two interesting issues here. One is that Prosecutors are subject to OPRA while the Judiciary is not (though the Judiciary’s records may be publicly accessible under other laws). The “back door” allows for easier access to some court records using the OPRA request process.
The second issue concerns whether public agencies are required to run a report to fill an OPRA request. Government Records Council Deputy Director Dawn SanFilippo said at the GRC’s August 12 seminar that they are. While OPRA does not require that records be created to fill an OPRA request, “Querying a database is not creating a record,” she said.
“Governments increasingly keep information in relational databases… [They], however, often believe that the convenience and advantages of custom computerized reports should inure only to the government and not private citizens. This lawsuit challenges that belief,” said Paff.
More information about the case and a copy of the court filing is available at Paff’s blog NJ Open Government Notes. Judge Travis L. Francis will hear the case at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 at the Middlesex County Courthouse.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) is the only non-profit organization in the state dedicated solely to improving New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and working to educate the public about these laws and increase governmental compliance.
NJFOG press releases are for media use without restriction. Other NJFOG content may be re-published in whole or in part with credit to NJFOG. Thank you.