Washington Township, Gloucester County, violated open public records laws when officials refused to release police dashboard video of Assemblyman Paul Moriarty’s drunken-driving arrest, a judge found Friday.
Washington Township must turn over the complete video of the traffic stop and subsequent arrest, as well as other records in the case within two weeks, Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio ruled, saying the public’s right to access the video trumps counterarguments. Curio heard the case in state Superior Court in Bridgeton, where she sits.
Patch Media Corporation sued Washington Township’s police records custodians and township attorney John Armano after they denied requests made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for the arrest footage. Gloucester Township Patch sought the dashboard camera footage immediately after Moriarty’s July 31 arrest on suspicion of drunken driving in Washington Township. Moriarty, a Democratic 4th District state assemblyman, quickly claimed the arrest was an abuse of power by Officer Joseph DiBuonaventura.
“This is a situation of public concern. The individual who was stopped and is the subject of the dashboard video and the reports is an elected official currently,” Curio said Friday from the bench. “Obviously the conduct of a public employee, a police officer, is of concern and interest to the public. When we view that against the backdrop of the stated purpose of OPRA and furthering an informed public, clearly the public interest would be served by granting access (to the video).”
Representing Washington Township, attorney John Trimble argued against releasing the footage because it involves an ongoing investigation and should be exempt from OPRA, he said. The charges against Moriarty are pending after DiBuonaventura was charged with official misconduct and other violations. The assemblyman filed the criminal complaints against the police officer, who is suspended without pay.
Without specifying the exact investigations underway, Trimble said they could hypothetically include more subjects than Moriarty and DiBuonaventura, and releasing the video could hamper the investigations.
“Every time the news media stands up and says we need to know everything, if we allow that… that’s not what OPRA is about,” Trimble argued. "We have to walk a very fine line in dealing with these OPRA requests."
Patch’s attorney, Andrew Bunn, countered that OPRA protects the public’s right to know and Trimble’s hypothetical scenarios about investigations don’t outweigh access to a public record.
“There’s a reason we have this law, and it’s because it’s a law that presumes against state secrecy. They say, ‘We can’t tell you, your honor, because we can’t tell you,’ and they expect you to accept that,” Bunn said.
Curio agreed. She recognized investigators don’t want to broadcast their inquiries, but added, “It is that need to be vague, or determination to be vague, that renders any argument that the disclosure of these items would hamper an investigation just entirely speculative.”
A second party joined Patch’s argument in the case. Terence Jones, a private citizen from Mullica Hill interested in police conduct, also sued Washington Township for refusing to release the arrest footage, dashboard camera footage from DiBuonaventura’s cruiser before the arrest and other records in the case, including text messages. Curio also ruled in Jones’ favor.
Curio agreed with Patch’s and Jones’ argument that the records in question were always public documents by their very existence and couldn’t be reverted to secrecy once any investigation launched.
The case was complicated somewhat by Moriarty’s decision to release part of the arrest footage himself in October. While the attorneys disagreed on whether that should lead to the full release, they both agreed the video footage released by Moriarty could have been edited.
“The fact that portions of the video are already in the public domain colors much of the analysis here,” Curio said. “The reality is that it’s not been demonstrated that further release of additional portions of this information … would substantially impede or impair investigations.”
While Curio gave Washington Township two weeks to turn over the documents, there is a chance the release could be held up if the township seeks an appeal or a stay of judgment. Meanwhile, Patch and Jones both asked Curio to rule that Washington Township reimburse attorney fees.