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

July 19, 1995

SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY NEWSPAPERS, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE TOWNSHIP OF MT. LAUREL, THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MT. LAUREL, AND THE CUSTODIAN OF RECORDS FOR THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MT. LAUREL, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW JERSEY, INTERVENOR-RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 275 N.J. Super. 465 (1994).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Coleman join in Justice Stein's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Southern New Jersey Newspapers, Inc. v. Township of Mt. Laurel, et al. (A-125/126-94)

Argued March 27, 1995 -- Decided July 19, 1995

STEIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue in this appeal is whether the press may obtain access to firearm permits and the underlying applications for those permits.

In October 1989, Judith Thomas of the Courier-Post, which is owned and published by Southern New Jersey Newspapers, Inc. (Southern), requested access to firearm permits issued by law enforcement officials in Mt. Laurel. Her request was denied, which led to the filing of the within suit. Southern expanded its request to include all documents relating to applications to purchase firearms other than handguns. Included were forms in respect of mental health records, reference letters, and background-investigation checks.

Southern sought access to the records on several grounds. These included the Right to Know Law, the common-law right of access, and a federal and state constitutional right of access. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court granted relief to Mt. Laurel and the other defendants. Southern appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of access but substituted its own reasoning for that of the trial court. Southern filed a petition for certification with the Supreme Court. The Attorney General cross-petitioned for certification, arguing that the Appellate Division erred in determining that the Right to Know Law requires local police chiefs or the Superintendent of the State Police to create summaries or statistical analyses of government documents. The Supreme Court granted both petitions.

HELD: Although plaintiff's Right to Know Law request to obtain access to firearm permits and related documentation has been rendered moot by a regulation of the Attorney General, the matter is remanded to the trial court to conduct an appropriate balancing test under the common-law right of access.

1. Because the Attorney General readopted a regulation exempting from public disclosure background checks and applications for the purchase of firearms, Southern's claim of access under the Right to Know Law is moot. The Court does not, therefore, reach the question of whether the Right to Know Law requires public officials to provide summaries or statistical analyses of government documents. The Court notes, however, that the Appellate Division's decision on this issue appears to be inconsistent with prior interpretations of the Right to Know Law. (pp. 14-17)

2. New Jersey courts have long-recognized a limited common-law right to inspect governmental records. The citizen seeking the records must establish that he or she has an "interest" in the records. Furthermore, the records must be "public records." If both requirements have been met, the court must then balance the applicant's interest in the information against the public's interest in the confidentiality of the documents. As a part of that balancing, the court may have to inspect the sought-after records privately ("in camera"). The end result may be to release all of the records, none of the records, or an edited version of the records. (pp. 18-23)

3. Southern has a sufficient interest to request access to public records. The requested documents are public records. The courts below, however, may have concluded prematurely that the State's interest in confidentiality outweighed Southern's interest in access. The record insufficiently defines the public purpose to be advanced by access to the documents. (pp. 23-25)

4. The matter is remanded to the trial court to conduct a new balancing test of the competing interests of the parties. The record may be expanded by the parties. The trial court should give considerable weight to the Attorney General's regulation regarding confidentiality and the Right to Know Law, although that regulation is not dispositive of an application made under the common-law right of access. (pp. 25-27)

5. The information that the court releases will depend on Southern's actual interest in obtaining access to that material. The court should attempt to provide only information that is responsive to the public interest at stake, which may result in the use of redacted documents. (pp. 27-29)

6. The Court treats the request for access to the Consent for Mental Health Records Search form separately. It refers the trial court to a statute (N.J.S.A. 30:4-24.3), which addresses the confidentiality of such forms, and identifies the exemptions to such confidentiality. (pp. 29-30)

7. In light of its Disposition, the Court does not reach Southern's constitutional claims.

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED as MODIFIED, and the matter is REMANDED to the Superior Court, Law Division, for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE STEIN's opinion.

STEIN, J.

The issue in this appeal is whether the press may obtain access to firearm permits and the documentation supporting the applications for those permits. The Courier-Post sought access to all documents maintained by the Township of Mount Laurel Police Department relating to applications to purchase firearms. The trial court denied access to those records. The Appellate Division affirmed, but granted the newspaper an opportunity to make limited inquiries concerning whether the department had complied with the statute authorizing issuance of firearm permits. We granted certification. 139 N.J. 289 (1994).

I

The essential facts are undisputed. In October 1989, Judith Thomas, a reporter for the Courier-Post, a daily newspaper owned and published by plaintiff, Southern New Jersey Newspapers, Inc., requested access to records of permits for the sale and purchase of firearms issued by law-enforcement officials of defendant Township of Mount Laurel (Mount Laurel). Thomas sought access to those records to obtain information relevant to her investigation of Saunder Weinstein, the Director of Public Safety and Acting Chief of Police of defendant Mount Laurel Police Department (Police Department), asserting a general interest in determining whether Weinstein had issued firearm permits without legal authority. Police Department officials refused to grant access without a formal demand letter from plaintiff's counsel.

Through counsel, plaintiff issued a written request to Weinstein dated November 2, 1989, demanding the release of records of firearm permits issued from January to October 1989. Because Weinstein did not answer that demand letter, plaintiff's counsel propounded another written request to Weinstein dated December 7, 1989, directing him to respond by December 12, 1989, or plaintiff's demand would be deemed denied. Weinstein did not respond to that request by December 12, 1989.

In January 1990, plaintiff filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, seeking access to the firearm-permit records maintained by the Police Department pursuant to the firearms-licensing statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-1 to -16, and asserting three grounds for entitlement to those records: the Examination and Copies of Public Records statute (Right-to-Know Law), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -4, the common-law right of access, and a constitutional right of access under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and under Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution. Subsequently, plaintiff expanded its request to encompass all documents maintained by the Police Department relating to applications to purchase firearms, including reference letters, background-investigation reports, and forms containing the applicant's consent to search his or her mental-health records (if any) and the result of that search. The demand, however, did not extend to files on applications to carry a handgun.

Following discovery, plaintiff moved, and defendants, Mount Laurel, the Police Department, and the Custodian of Records for the Police Department, cross-moved for summary judgment. The Burlington County Solicitor, appearing as amicus curiae on leave granted on behalf of the Burlington County Adjustor, and the Burlington County Prosecutor, appearing as intervenor of right on motion granted, opposed plaintiff's motion. After an initial hearing on November 8, 1991, the trial court ordered supplemental briefing and argument on the jurisdictional and substantive effect of a proposed State police regulation, 23 N.J.R. 2258 (Aug. 5, 1991). That regulation, N.J.A.C. 13:54-1.15, which had become effective on November 18, 1991, 23 N.J.R. 3525, barred disclosure of "any background investigation conducted by the chief of police, the Superintendent or county prosecutor of any applicant for a license, permit, firearms identification card or registration * * * except upon order of a court of competent jurisdiction."

In March 1992, the trial court granted defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. In its ruling, the court listed the documents that constituted a completed investigative file: (1) a completed and signed application for either a firearms-purchaser identification card or a handgun-purchase permit; (2) the Consent for Mental Health Records Search form, which the applicant signs and the county adjuster completes after searching its mental-health records; (3) two answered reference letters; (4) a set of fingerprints and any report issued by the State Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding any comparison with fingerprints on file; (5) a Criminal History Report (rap sheet); and (6) a Firearms Applicant Investigation Report, which contains a summary of the above five documents. In addition, the court noted that if an applicant intends to purchase a handgun, the file will eventually include a Permit to Purchase a Handgun and Form of Register, which the applicant delivers in quadruplicate to the handgun seller, who, after selling the applicant a handgun, completes the permit and delivers the original to the Superintendent of the State ...


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