By Jim Walsh
Nov. 17, 2015
(full article here)
CAMDEN – Corrections officers who smuggled cellphones into Camden County Jail had no right to privacy once the phones were discovered by investigators, a state judge said Monday.
Superior Court Judge Louis Meloni made that finding in rejecting an effort to keep secret more than 5,000 texts shared by a group of white officers at the Camden jail. Nine officers were fired earlier this year after authorities learned of the texts, including photos and videos, which have been described as “highly inflammatory and racist.”
Camden County officials agreed last month to the Courier-Post’s request for the texts under the state’s Open Public Records Act. But an attorney for Michael Jacob, an ex-officer fighting dismissal, sought to block the texts’ release.
Meloni’s ruling clears the way for the texts to be made public.
“Every resident of Camden County has the right to know what was being done by corrections officers who broke the rules and exchanged messages that were disgustingly racist and even targeted the inmates whom they were duty-bound to protect,” Courier-Post Regional Editor Jason Alt said after the ruling.
“In this case, Camden County recognized the public’s right to these documents and actually argued alongside the Courier-Post in court so that these records could see the light of day,” Alt added. “I’m sincerely appreciative that the county supported the right of citizens to scrutinize the actions of the government their tax dollars support, and that it was willing to stand up for such an important principle.”
Jacob’s attorney, Stuart Alterman of Marlton, argued an internal affairs investigator “coerced” his client into allowing a search of two phones found in his possession in the jail. He said authorities should have obtained a warrant, and he asserted investigators improperly broadened their search once the phones’ contents were available.
Meloni saw it differently, noting corrections officers are not allowed to have personal phones in the jail.
“This is contraband and they should not have had them,” the judge said. “There was no search warrant necessary.”
Meloni also rejected arguments that the texts could be withheld as part of a criminal investigation. He agreed with attorneys for the county and the Courier-Post that the messages instead were part of an administrative investigation and, thus, available to the public.
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