ACLU-NJ Voices Concern on Body Camera Directive for Police

July 28, 2015
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Law Enforcement Body Cameras

NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.

The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive (PDF) to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.

Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:

“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.

“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.

“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.

“We have real concerns about several specific, key points:

  • Many important police interactions with civilians will not be recorded, including routine street encounters.
  • Public access to the recordings is too restrictive. For example, the subject of a recording isn’t guaranteed access to the recording.
  • Recordings may be kept indefinitely. That raises concerns about privacy, as well as First Amendment protections.”

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Port Authority Now Covered by Open Records Law

June 30, 2015
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Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Open Government

Governor Chris Christie late Monday signed legislation that for the first time requires the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey be subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act. Christie signed the Senate concurrence of conditional vetoes he made in the original legislation, S2183/A3350. Christie’s signature comes six months after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed companion legislation, and it was necessary for the law to take effect.

The following statement about the legislation is attributable to ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas:

"This new law to make public records more open represents a positive step toward addressing significant and long-standing concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability at the Port Authority, deficiencies that were highlighted in the wake of the ‘Bridgegate’ lane-closure scandal. The law, which the ACLU-NJ supported, ensures that transparency protections will have the force of law and will provide a legal remedy to individuals when record requests are denied.

"While this law shines some disinfecting sunshine on the Port Authority, the work to transform this troubled bi-state agency is not done. The Port Authority is still left to its own devices regarding its public meetings. In order to make the agency more accountable, New Jersey and New York must enact a law that subjects the Port Authority to the same open meetings requirements that all state and local government bodies must follow, and individuals must be provided the right to challenge agency actions that violate those requirements."

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As Governor, Presidential Candidate Christie Earned Low Marks

June 30, 2015
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

ACLU-NJ Report Card Reflects Poor Performance in First Term

NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.

Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.

“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”

The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.

“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”

Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).

  • Freedom of religion: Christie earned a solid B, his highest mark, particularly for his work to protect Muslim New Jerseyans from discrimination.
  • State involvement in religion: On the other end of the religion spectrum, Christie earned an F for giving away millions in state funds to two sectarian religious institutions that train clergy members.
  • Transparency: Christie earned a solid F for his record on transparency, despite campaigning in 2009 as the candidate who will bring accountability to Trenton. He fought against reforms to bring more transparency to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency at the epicenter of the Bridgegate scandal, and his administration routinely denies basic open records requests that the courts later overturn.
  • Criminal justice and drug policy: Christie’s record is a mixed one, earning him a C. He supported reforming the state’s broken bail system, as well as adding oversight to police acquisition of military equipment. However, he has dragged his heels implementing medical marijuana and more recently opposed an effort to regulate and tax marijuana, saying that as president he would prosecute individuals in the four states that have legalized marijuana for personal use by adults. During his time in office, New Jersey has made more than 100,000 arrests for marijuana possession.
  • LGBT rights: Christie fought against marriage equality, ending his opposition only when it became clear he would lose in court, earning him a D.
  • Immigrants’ rights: Christie supported giving undocumented immigrants a chance at college by signing the New Jersey Dream Act, but vetoed an important provision to open the doors fully by allowing them to apply for state financial aid.
  • Women’s rights: Christie has a mixed record. He slashed funding for women’s family planning centers, which has forced at least six clinics to close or fire staff. He did, however, sign into law a bill that protects women from pregnancy discrimination, as well as several measures aimed at closing the wage gap between men and women.

Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.

Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.

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Let the Sun Shine

March 20, 2015
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ACLU-NJ Offers “Sunshine Week” Ideas for Strengthening OPRA and OPMA Laws, and for Holding Government and Elected Officials Accountable to the Public

In a remarkable bit of timing this week, the New Jersey state Senate failed in a vote to over-ride a veto by Governor Christie of legislation that would have imposed for the first time strict legal requirements for more transparent governance at the scandal-plagued Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

What was so remarkable about the timing?

Republicans in the Senate went jelly-legged during Sunshine Week, a seven-day celebration of openness and transparency in government that began after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002 beat back attempts by the Florida Legislature to create some 300 exemptions to its open meetings laws. Its name, however, comes from an idea voiced a century ago by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In describing the need for public oversight of elected officials, Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And the point is to draw public attention to the necessity of laws that require government officials and elected leaders to conduct business in full view of the public.

The PA veto over-ride in New Jersey failed even though the bill, sponsored by open government champions Sens. Bob Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, had previously won unanimous approval of both the Senate and the Assembly. The failure of the bill to win approval “means the port authority is still vulnerable to abuse and commuters remain at risk of schemes that take more of their hard-earned money out of their pockets,” Gordon said.

The response to the governor’s veto doesn’t necessarily mean everything is rotten in Trenton, but it does demonstrate quite clearly that not all elected officials put a premium on the need to be held publicly accountable for their actions.

As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, even though it has a budget larger than many states. Indeed, it was only through dogged reporting, led by The Record of Bergen County, that the notorious “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from a Christie aide to a PA official was discovered and launched the political scandal over the closure of traffic lanes onto the George Washington Bridge.

The PA is but one example of the need for greater transparency and accountability in government.

In recognition of Sunshine Week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is offering up its own ideas for bringing New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act into the 21st Century.

“Open government is a cornerstone of democracy that enables advocates, activists and the press to monitor government performance and expose corruption,” ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg said. “The transparency of government activities enables access to critical information needed to shine a light on government performance and expose corruption."

In addition to the ideas for strengthening accountability – including adopting policies to ensure proper retention of government emails and texts that are made on private systems , creating websites where individuals can find publically-available information regarding their municipality, and strengthening the existing language of NJ’s transparency laws – the ACLU-NJ is highlighting five important government transparency cases that established the right to videotape public meetings, create privacy safeguards for automated license plate readers and closed loopholes in the existing open meetings and records law.

ACLU-NJ Disappointed in NJ Senate’s Failure to Secure Port Authority Transparency

March 16, 2015
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Bill passed unanimously but Senate could not muster the votes to override Christie’s veto, dashing hopes for accountability at Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

The ACLU-NJ expressed disappointment with the New Jersey State Senate today for failing to override Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill to transform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) that passed the Senate unanimously.

The legislation, S2181, sponsored by Senators Robert Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, would have established critical independent transparency standards for the bi-state agency, whose failures of accountability garnered national attention in the wake of the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures.

New Jersey lawmakers voted on an override of the veto on March 16 but failed to secure enough votes, with 25 in favor and 14 voting against. In order for laws pertaining to the bi-state agency to be enforceable, New York and New Jersey must each enact parallel versions of the legislation. The New York legislature has already reintroduced its counterpart to S2181 following a veto from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during that state’s 2014 legislative session.

“Time is long past for dragging the Port Authority out of its own muck and directing some disinfecting sunshine at it. History has shown that we cannot trust the Port Authority to police itself,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The legislature unanimously supported bringing the Port Authority into the 21st Century by passing transparency and accountability measures. The Senate needed to show that same conviction now by overriding the governor’s veto, and it fell far short of what the people of New Jersey need. This nearly $8 billion agency impacts the daily lives of millions of New Jerseyans and we cannot afford to allow it to continue to avoid oversight. Today’s vote constitutes a sad day for transparency and accountability in New Jersey.”

As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, despite operating with a budget that surpasses most states’. Among other accountability provisions, S2181 would take significant steps to addressing this loophole by applying important open public meetings rules to the Port Authority.

“S2181 would have been a critical first step for the Port Authority and we support override of the Governor’s veto,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “But the legislature today let the people of New Jersey down. We need accountability, both through S2181 and through follow-up legislation to ensure New Jerseyans can effectively enforce the open meetings requirements for the Port Authority in court. We will continue to push for accountability at the Port Authority.”

S2183, a companion bill supported by the ACLU-NJ and conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie in January, would subject the Port Authority to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

The longstanding issue of transparency failures at the Port Authority drew widespread public attention in late 2013, when news of the Christie administration’s involvement in the closure of traffic lanes on the George Washing Bridge emerged. However, lawmakers and transparency advocates have attempted to shine a light on the workings of the Port Authority for years. In July 2012, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have given the public greater access to financial and procedural dealings at the Port Authority, among other reforms.

ACLU-NJ Sues NJ Department of Health for Denying OPRA Request on Ebola

March 3, 2015
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Lawsuit Would Compel DOH to Turn Over Records About the State's Quarantine Policies for Those Exposed to the Virus

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the New Jersey Department of Health’s refusal to provide public records regarding the development and implementation of state policies and protocols about exposure to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).

“The state of New Jersey must be transparent about the scientific information and health policy thinking used to formulate and implement these statewide rules,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer said. “The public must be assured that these policy decisions are being guided by science, not fear.”

The ACLU-NJ made a request on Oct. 30 to the New Jersey Department of Health under the state’s Open Public Records Act for emails and other correspondence from specific officials in the Department of Health that contained several key words, including Ebola, EVD, quarantine, isolation or screening. It also sought correspondence with county departments of health.

The state requested several lengthy delays in responding to the request, including a final demand for a delay on Dec. 22, at which time the ACLU-NJ gave Jan. 15 as the absolute deadline for a response.

On Jan. 14, the records custodian for the Department denied the ACLU-NJ request alleging it was overly broad and required research and also suggesting that the records sought fell under OPRA exemptions for material that is advisory, consultative or deliberative.

“The department’s refusal is unjustified because the request was very specific,” said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director. “Not only did it take them ten weeks to respond, but the department refused to conduct a simple search of its computer files.”

The lawsuit filed late Monday challenges the denial on several counts, especially the state’s contention that the request wasn’t specific enough and that a key word search of email is “research” that would require creation of a new government record.

The ACLU-NJ noted that OPRA does not permit a records custodian to issue a blanket rejection of all emails as falling within the deliberative material exemption to OPRA.

Finally, the ACLU-NJ argues that, given that the State considered the request itself invalid, it clearly engaged in delay after delay without justification, in violation of OPRA. Since it believed the request invalid, DOH should have issued a denial soon after receipt of the request, rather than making the ACLU-NJ wait two months for that rejection and making it appear that a search for records was occurring during that time.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the state in violation of the Open Public Record Act, levy a fine and compel the defendants to immediately provide copies of the requested records.

The case is captioned ACLU of New Jersey v. Department of Health and is filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County. Read the verified complaint and brief.

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Legislature Acts to Make Port Authority More Transparent, Accountable

November 13, 2014
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George Washington Bridge

The ACLU of New Jersey applauded the Legislature’s overwhelming approval of two key measures that will strengthen transparency and accountability within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and urged Governor Christie to sign the bills that will move the PANYNJ’s work out of the shadows and into the sunlight.

New York lawmakers have already passed identical legislation, as is required for the bi-state agency.

The legislation (A3350/S2183 and A3417/S2181) would require the PANYNJ to abide by New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), as well as New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  The lack of transparency within the agency was highlighted last year during investigations of a three-day shut-down of local lanes at the George Washington Bridge, which became known as “Bridgegate” in newspaper headlines.

 “The lack of transparency at the PANYNJ has been a concern to New Jersey citizens well before the lane closure incident,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, testifying in support of the bills. “The legislation represents positive steps toward addressing this significant and long-standing concern.”

“The only thing now that stands between the status quo and these new public accountability measures at the PANYNJ are the signatures of Governors Christie and Cuomo,” `said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director at the ACLU-NJ

“However, the work to reform this troubled agency is not done,” Rosmarin added.  “The legislative changes will fall short of their aim without follow-up legislation that creates stronger  enforcement mechanisms. The ACLU-NJ looks forward to working with lawmakers in both parties to make sure that these reforms gain the teeth they need to be a genuine check on the agency.”

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Spooky Stuff at the ACLU-NJ

October 31, 2014
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This Halloween the staff at the ACLU of New Jersey share what spooks them when it comes to defending our civil liberties. The videos below will serve content from YouTube's privacy statment. ACLU-NJ's privacy statement.

When Drones Attack!

ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin is afraid of unregulated drones in New Jersey's skies (and conference rooms).

The Loss of Privacy

ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom is scared that the 4th Amendment will disappear (literally).

Freedom of Expression

ACLU-NJ Administrative Assistant Farah Rahaman is afraid of not being able to express herself.

Voting Rights

ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg is frightened that voter suppression laws will take away her right to vote.

ACLU-NJ Seeks Governor’s Basis for Mandatory Ebola Quarantine

October 27, 2014
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Records requests filed with the Governor’s Office and NJ Department of Health Seeking Policies and Documents Used to Develop Ebola Protocols in NJ

The ACLU-NJ filed Open Public Records Act requests today with the Office of the Governor (PDF) and state Department of Health (PDF) seeking the details of policies pertaining to quarantine protocols for the Ebola virus.

The request follows Gov. Chris Christie’s announcement Friday of a mandatory quarantine policy and the recent detention of an American health care worker on her way home from West Africa. The request also stresses that the disturbing constitutional implications of quarantines for people exhibiting no symptoms -- as happened to Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine who was quarantined at Newark Liberty International Airport after working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone -- compound the urgency of this request.

“Our government not only has a responsibility to keep the public safe, but also to keep the public informed,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “It is essential that the state of New Jersey be as clear and transparent as possible about the scientific information and health policy thinking that is being relied upon to formulate protocols and policies, especially when the public policy is as drastic as a 21-day quarantine. The public needs to be reassured that these policy decisions are being guided by science, not fear.”

Since the quarantine of Hickox on Friday, Oct. 24, the Governor’s policy, announced in tandem with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a news conference, has come under scrutiny, including from the ACLU. Governor Christie has said New Jersey will now detain all health care workers returning from West Africa who have cared for Ebola patients. The vague details surrounding the policies have made it imperative for the public to understand the specific regulations authorizing the governor to detain people.

“New Jerseyans have a right to know what decisions are being made and that the decisions are supported by sound medical judgment,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “Without a review of regulations, policies and protocols, it is impossible to know that what the government is doing is both medically necessary and no more restrictive than it needs to be.”

The OPRA request also asks that the matter be given priority.

“Given the tremendous public interest in these issues, I ask that you prioritize this request and provide the documents as soon as possible,” the ACLU-NJ’s request said. The Open Public Records Act mandates that a state agency must provide a response within seven business days.

Kaci Hickox to be Released from Detention but Serious Constitutional Concerns Remain with Mandatory Quarantine Policy

October 27, 2014
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Upon news of the impending release of health care worker Kaci Hickox from mandatory quarantine in New Jersey, ACLU of New Jersey executive director Udi Ofer issues the following statement.

Udi Ofer

"Kaci Hickox will see freedom after being coercively detained for three days, but New Jersey’s overbroad policy of automatically detaining all healthcare workers returning from West Africa after helping Ebola patients continues. Ebola is a serious matter and the government’s response should be driven by science and facts, not by fear and politics.

'Medical workers have put their lives at risk treating Ebola patients. They should be rewarded with compassion and not treated like criminals. Mandatory quarantine of people exhibiting no Ebola symptoms and when not medically necessary is overbroad and raises serious constitutional concerns. Governor Christie should rescind the mandatory quarantine policy, which could affect potentially hundreds of returning healthcare workers.

'New Jersey’s policy not only raises constitutional problems, but also discourages first responders from helping sick patients who need their assistance."

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