The lead law enforcement agency investigating the shooting death of a New Jersey politician is going to unusual lengths to keep records about the slaying from becoming public.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has stayed silent for nearly a week on the death of Eunice Dwumfour, the 30-year-old member of the Sayreville Borough Council who was found dead in her car on Feb. 1. On Tuesday, the agency asked a court to block the release of documents media organizations had requested under the state’s Open Public Records Act, including recordings of 911 calls, arrest reports and surveillance recordings.
Government transparency advocates say the unusual legal maneuver was likely meant to deter media and members of the public from asking for public records.
“That sounds like prosecutors gone wild,” said Walter Leurs, an attorney specializing in the public records law, known as OPRA. “It is extraordinarily rare for public agencies to affirmatively run to court in order to preemptively deny access to records.”
He described it as an “aggressive and unnecessary maneuver” — and one that could deter members of the public from seeking government records for fear of being taken to court.
The filing named journalists working for several media outlets, including Gothamist, the Associated Press, CBS, ABC and the Gannett newspaper chain.
Brynn Krause, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, has refused to answer questions about the case since the morning of Feb. 2, when the agency identified Dwumfour as the victim of the shooting.
Law enforcement authorities have refused to say if there are suspects in the shooting, if they have a suspected motive or if they believe there is an ongoing threat to the community. Krause’s emails to Gothamist have included a link to the prosecutor’s office’s Open Public Records Act request form.
It’s not unusual for law enforcement to deny requests for records, citing exemptions in the Open Public Records Act that allow some records to be withheld if their release could compromise an ongoing investigation or violate a privacy concern. When that happens, a requester can make an appeal through the state’s Government Records Council, or sue for the records in court.
However, it’s very unusual for a public agency to take someone to court for requesting a record, Leurs said.
“The way that records law is structured in New Jersey, the decision on whether and when to go to court always resides with a requester,” he said. “And it never resides with the public agency, ever.”
The filing, made in Middlesex County Superior Court, argues that denying public access to records is justifiable when disclosure would cause serious injury to a person or entity, or when a privacy interest substantially outweighs the presumption that records are meant to open to the public.
It says disclosing the records would harm the privacy of the deceased councilwoman and her family, and compromise prosecutors’ ability to secure a just conviction. It says the case would be “severely hampered” if possible suspects had access to the records.
The filing doesn’t explain why the prosecutor’s office didn’t simply deny any public records requests it thinks are exempt from disclosure under the law.
Walter Paff, a longtime transparency activist who maintains the collection of blogs at TransparencyNJ.com, described the maneuver as “heavy-handed.” It’s onerous enough for a media organization to defend itself in court, he said.
“It’s especially not fair when it’s an average citizen,” he said.
Agencies are required to say how release of a record could hamper an ongoing investigation — but Paff said not all records necessarily do. He cited, for example, the possibility of a 911 call reporting gunshots. Those calls often do not disclose any information that’s not already acknowledged publicly by law enforcement. They’re considered available to the public, though law enforcement may redact portions because of privacy reasons.
A court date on this issue is expected on Thursday.