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Tulsa, Oklahoma and the Right to Know Law

What happened this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is shocking. An unarmed, lone African-American man, walking slowly with his hands in the air, was shot and killed by one of several police officers who were following him. What is unusual about this incident is that two police videos showed the incident. One video was taken either from a police car or a body camera, and the other was taken from a helicopter circling overhead. Without the videos, the country would not have seen this incident and would not be shocked.

The prompt police release of these videos is praiseworthy. Not all police forces or prosecutors’ offices are willing to release videos of police interactions with civilians. This is where Right to Know laws come in. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have laws allowing the public to obtain certain public records. Both laws have sparked litigation. Right now the question of whether police videos must be disclosed in response to requests is pending in cases before the top courts of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We previously reported on a recent decision of the intermediate appellate court in New Jersey, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, requiring production of dash cam videos. Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, 446 N.J. Super. 163, 141 A.3d 300 (App. Div., June 30, 2016).

An even more recent decision of that same court addresses another aspect of the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA). A news organization requested records from a prosecutor’s office about a person who was not charged with any crime. Apparently complaints had been made concerning the person’s work, 911 calls may have been made, and law enforcement reports may have been filed. The opinion did not identify the person in question, nor give additional information. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court held on August 31, 2016, that neither OPRA nor the common law right of access required the prosecutor’s office to confirm or deny the existence of any of the requested records: “we conclude that records relating to a person who has not been arrested or charged with an offense are entitled to confidentiality based on long-established judicial precedent.” North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Bergen Cnty. Prosecutor’s Office, 2016 N.J. Super. LEXIS 119, *2 (App. Div., Aug. 31, 2016) (“NJMG”).

NJMG shows that Right to Know laws are limited. Tulsa, Oklahoma shows that release of information, either voluntarily or under Right to Know laws, can be powerful evidence of what happened. In our era of surveillance video cameras everywhere, use of Right to Know laws can result in production of key evidence in both civil and criminal litigants’ cases. Locks Law Firm has experience pursuing relief under the Right to Know, and we stand ready to help you.