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Southern New Jersey Newspapers, Inc. v. Township of Mount Laurel

August 18, 1994

SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY NEWSPAPERS, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT LAUREL, THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT LAUREL AND THE CUSTODIAN OF RECORDS FOR THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT LAUREL, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



Judges Shebell, Long and Landau.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Landau, J.A.D.

Argued February 24, 1994

On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Burlington County.

This is an appeal by plaintiff Southern New Jersey Newspapers, Inc. (plaintiff) publisher of the Camden Courier Post, from the grant of summary judgment on the cross motion of defendants, the Township of Mount Laurel, the Police Department of the Township of Mount Laurel, and the Custodian of Records for the Police Department of the Township of Mount Laurel (collectively hereafter, the Township) and from the denial of plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in its action which sought access to certain gun permit files maintained by the Township. The Burlington County Solicitor appeared below and has participated in the appeal as amicus curiae on behalf of the Burlington County Adjuster, with particular reference to the Adjuster's interest in confidentiality of certain mental health records under N.J.S.A. 30:4-24.3. Additionally, the Burlington County Prosecutor was permitted to participate in the trial court, and the Attorney General has participated as amicus curiae on the appeal.

Our review leads to affirmance of the grant of summary judgment to the Township and the denial of plaintiff's motion. However, we conditionally modify the summary judgment to provide that it is partial, in order to permit plaintiff to amend its pleadings consistent with the limitations set forth below.

History of the Case

Plaintiff's complaint in lieu of prerogative writs sought access to, and permission to copy, records of permits for the sale and purchase of firearms, asserting that such records were subject to the Right to Know Law, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -4. The complaint also asserted common law rights, and a constitutional right under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution, Article I, paragraph 6. Plaintiff did not initially request the background information required by the Township in connection with issuance of handgun purchase permits and firearms purchaser identification cards.

We note that information respecting permits to carry handguns, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-4, has not been requested. The issues here raised involve only permits for purchase of handguns, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3a, and firearms purchaser identification cards, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3b. The identification cards are issued with respect to acquisition and maintenance of rifles and shotguns.

During the course of discovery, the Township advised plaintiff of the various back-up documents which are solicited and maintained in connection with issuance of the handgun purchaser permits and firearms purchaser identification cards, consistent with the requirements set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3c *fn1. These records included forms designated as follows:

1. Voluntary Form of Register of Firearms - S.P. 650

2. Instructions for a Duplicate Firearms I.D. Card

3. Application for a Duplicate Firearms Purchaser Identification Card - STS-3

4. Instructions for Firearms Applicant

5. Reference Form

6. Application for Permit to Carry Handgun - SP642

7. Consent for Mental Health Records Search - STS-1

8. Application to Purchase Handgun

9. Application for Firearms purchaser Identification Card - STS-33

10. Firearms Applicant Investigation Report

By the time the summary judgment motions were considered, it was recognized that plaintiff sought not only copies of the purchase permits and firearms purchaser identification cards which had been issued during a given period, as requested in its complaint, but also by discovery or otherwise, all of the completed statutorily required background information including the application, as well as details of the issued permits, firearms purchaser identification cards, copies of reference letters, and investigative conclusions.

The information required from applicants is particularized in N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3e *fn2. The Legislature has specifically precluded the addition of any conditions or requirements to those statutorily enumerated. N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3f.

During the hearing on the motions, held November 20, 1991, it became known that the Superintendent of the Division of State Police (Superintendent) had proposed in the New Jersey Register for August 5, 1991, readoption of regulations governing permits to purchase handguns and firearms purchaser identification cards, as well as certain amendments adopted effective November 15, 1991.

As then amended, N.J.A.C. 13:54-1.15 provided that background investigations conducted by chiefs of police or the Superintendent before issuing such permits and firearms purchaser identification cards are not public records and should not be disclosed to any person, including the applicant, except upon order of a court of competent jurisdiction. The rationale explained upon proposing adoption of this Rule was that such background investigations contained sensitive information often revealed to law enforcement authorities on the condition that it not be disseminated. In addition, the rationale included reference to protection of privacy rights of the applicant because background investigations include such ...


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