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Police Departments’ Arrest Records are Public Records Subject to Public Disclosure, Supreme Court Says

Even if the judiciary creates the forms and stores them once completed, arrest records are still police records subject to public disclosure under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the New Jersey Supreme Court held this month.

On June 17, 2021, the Court held in Baffi Simmons v. Wendy Mercado, __ N.J. ___ (2021), that municipal police departments’ complaint-summonses – records created after certain kinds of arrests – are government records subject to disclosure under OPRA. The case was filed after the African American Data and Research Institute (AARDARI) submitted an OPRA request to the City of Millville Police Department for complaint-summonses for certain classes of drug offenses. The Police Department claimed it was not required to produce the complaint-summonses because the judiciary “makes” the blank forms, and the police do not maintain the completed forms on their own database.

The Court held that the police had to produce the documents because the information sought by the AARDARI is not the blank forms themselves, it is the substantive information filled in by the police. The form is “nothing but an empty shell until law enforcement officers…make that shell into an official government document” by inputting information. Because OPRA favors government transparency and broad disclosure to the public, “it is evident that the [documents] sought in this matter are government records subject to disclosure by [the City of Millville Police Department] under OPRA.”

The Court also said that OPRA does not require the police to maintain the information on their own database in order to be obligated to produce them on request. OPRA requires disclosure of electronic government records that a government official makes, maintains, or keeps on file. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1 (emphasis added). Since the police “make” these records, they qualify as government records, even though the police do not maintain them.

The Court also held that requests for a certain type of document over a certain time period are specific enough that they do not require the police to do research in order to produce them.

The ruling preserves the spirit of disclosure of OPRA, ensuring that police departments cannot obscure information by simply passing it off to the judiciary.

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