A&A: Police Department in New Jersey Won’t Release Report on a Family Member’s Death

Q: I have requested a copy of the police report about a family member’s death in New Jersey They won’t let me have a copy.

A: New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act provides that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State, with certain exceptions, for the protection of the public interest, and any limitations on the right of access … shall be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. 

However, the Act also provides thatwhere it shall appear that the record or records which are sought to be inspected, copied, or examined shall pertain to an investigation in progress by any public agency, the right of access may be denied if the inspection, copying or examination of such record or records shall be inimical to the public interest….”  N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(a)

Additional review of the Act shows that certain information concerning a criminal investigation should be made available to the public within 24 hours or as soon as practicable, of a request for such information:

  • where a crime has been reported but no arrest yet made, information as to the type of crime, time, location and type of weapon, if any;
  •   if an arrest has been made, information as to the name, address and age of any victims unless there has not been sufficient opportunity for notification of next of kin of any victims of injury and/or death to any such victim or where the release of the names of any victim would be contrary to existing law or court rule.  In deciding on the release of information as to the identity of a victim, the safety of the victim and the victim’s family, and the integrity of any ongoing investigation, shall be considered;
  •  if an arrest has been made, information as to the defendant’s name, age, residence, occupation, marital status and similar background information and, the identity of the complaining party unless the release of such information is contrary to existing law or court rule;
  • information as to the text of any charges such as the complaint, accusation and indictment unless sealed by the court or unless the release of such information is contrary to existing law or court rule;
  •  information as to the identity of the investigating and arresting personnel and agency and the length of the investigation;  information of the circumstances immediately surrounding the arrest, including but not limited to the time and place of the arrest, resistance, if any, pursuit, possession and nature and use of weapons and ammunition by the suspect and by the police; and
  • information as to circumstances surrounding bail, whether it was posted and the amount thereof. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(b). 

However, the Act again provides that “where it shall appear that the information requested or to be examined will jeopardize the safety of any person or jeopardize any investigation in progress or may be otherwise inappropriate to release, such information may be withheld.”  Id. 

Depending on the status of the investigation and what the records contain, you may or may not be entitled to the report.  If you need additional information, these websites contain state-by-state guides to state open records laws that you might find helpful in moving forward: http://www.nfoic.org/state-freedom-of-information-laws or Open Goverment Guide.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries.  In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.

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