CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER delivered the opinion of the Court.
In this appeal, we consider whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, requires disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property.
The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office seized sports memorabilia and later auctioned it off to the public. Plaintiff made an OPRA request for the names and addresses of the successful bidders. Citing privacy concerns, the Prosecutor's Office declined to produce that information. Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit to obtain the records under OPRA and the common law, and the trial court ordered the records disclosed. The Appellate Division looked to various factors outlined in
OPRA favors broad public access to government records. At the same time, it directs agencies to safeguard "a citizen's personal information ... when disclosure... would violate the citizen's reasonable expectation of privacy." N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. In light of that language, courts are not required to analyze the
Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing. It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property — including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property — will remain private.
On May 3, 2014, an auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. The Prosecutor's Office hired Caspert Management Company, a private auctioneer, to conduct the auction.
Bidders could participate in the auction either in person or online. All live bidders completed a registration form that asked them to list their names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses. They were assigned a paddle number to use at the auction. Online bidders were also assigned a paddle number. At oral argument, counsel for the Prosecutor's Office represented that online bidders had to present the same personal information to participate.
There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Successful live bidders received receipts that listed only their paddle numbers; no personal information appeared on the receipts. Successful online bidders got receipts that listed their paddle numbers, names, and addresses. After a news report raised questions about whether the auctioned items were authentic, the Prosecutor's Office offered the buyers refunds.
On December 9, 2014, plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor's Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for "[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders," "[c]ontact information for each winning bidder," and other records relating to the contract with Caspert. (The latter category of records is not part of this appeal.) In response, the Prosecutor's Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers' names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts. Plaintiff did not pick up the compact disc of redacted receipts that was prepared.
Days later, plaintiff filed a complaint that asserted he was entitled to the requested records under OPRA and the common law right of access. Plaintiff also alleged violations of the State Constitution and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act but later withdrew those claims before the trial court. The complaint named as defendants the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and its custodian of records, who filed an answer and a motion to dismiss.
In a written decision dated February 25, 2015, the Honorable Peter E. Doyne, then Assignment Judge for the Bergen Vicinage, denied the motion to dismiss but declined to order immediate disclosure. The court found that the winning bidders did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal information under OPRA. "[I]n light of defendants' good faith attempt to comply with the request and the state's obligation to safeguard personal information," however, the court granted defendants ten more days to contact the winning bidders and advise them either to object to the release of their personal information or to move to intervene.
The Prosecutor's Office, in turn, informed the court that it sent a letter to the thirty-nine successful bidders; that nineteen responded; and that all but three objected to the release of their personal information. Based on the responses, the Prosecutor's Office declined to provide plaintiff the unredacted records.
The Appellate Division reversed. To determine whether the records were shielded under OPRA's privacy clause, the panel weighed the
Plaintiff argues that the Appellate Division erred in allowing the Prosecutor's Office to withhold the names and addresses of the bidders. Plaintiff contends that the ruling failed to adhere to OPRA's presumption of openness; that names and addresses are not exempt under OPRA; that prior Executive Orders and legislative history support that conclusion; that the ruling starkly contrasts with precedent; and that the
Defendants argue that the Appellate Division appropriately analyzed the
Amicus Libertarians for Transparent Government argues that the names and addresses of purchasers of government property must be disclosed in order to guard against corruption and wrongdoing. Amicus also contends that courts have "over-applied"
OPRA calls for "ready access to government records" by the public.
OPRA broadly defines the term "government record." The phrase includes any documents "made, maintained or kept on file in the course of ... official business." N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. At the same time, the statute declares that a public agency must "safeguard from public access a citizen's personal information with which it has been entrusted when disclosure thereof would violate the citizen's
The statute lists twenty-three exemptions. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. None, however, provide an overarching exception for the disclosure of names or home addresses. One exception specifically prevents public access to the following personal information: "that portion of any document which discloses the social security number, credit card number, unlisted telephone number or driver license number of any person."
Several other exemptions encompass names and home addresses but prevent their release only in limited situations. Personal identifying information — including a person's name and address — is exempt from disclosure when received "in connection with the issuance of any license authorizing hunting with a firearm." N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. "Personal firearms records" — including a person's name and address — which are "contained in a background investigation ... of any applicant for a permit to purchase a handgun, firearms identification card license, or firearms registration" are also exempt.
In addition, OPRA protects crime victims whose personal information appears in government records. A defendant convicted of a crime may not gain access to the victim's home address or various other personal identifiers. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-2.2(a). OPRA also exempts from disclosure any information that is protected by any other state or federal statute, regulation, or executive order. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-9(a). As a result, the home address of a victim of domestic violence cannot be obtained through OPRA.
As the above examples reveal, the Legislature has chosen to prevent disclosure of home addresses in select situations. Aside from those particular exemptions, however, OPRA does not contain a broad-based exception for the disclosure of names and home addresses that appear in government records.
That issue has been debated before. On July 5, 2002, just days before OPRA went into effect, Governor McGreevey issued Executive Order 21. To give effect to "the legislative directive that a public" agency must "safeguard from public access a citizen's personal information with which it has been entrusted," the Executive Order declared that "an individual's home address and home telephone number, as well
One month later, the Governor rescinded the above provision of Executive Order 21 and asked the Privacy Study Commission "to promptly study the issue of whether and to what extent the home address and home telephone number of citizens should be made publicly available by public agencies."
The Commission held hearings and issued a final report in 2004. It recommended, among other things, that (a) "[h]ome telephone numbers ... should not be disclosed"; (b) "[p]ublic agencies should notify individuals that their
The Legislature has amended OPRA multiple times since the report was issued.
We review the interpretation of a statute de novo.
As a threshold matter, the documents sought in this case qualify as government records under OPRA. Records of public auctions of forfeited government property are plainly "government records" under the law, and no specific exemption applies.
We turn next to the statute's privacy provision. The provision, once again, directs agencies to safeguard personal information that, if disclosed, "would violate [a] citizen's reasonable expectation of privacy." N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. The trial court considered the
To balance the statute's competing aims — ready access to government records
The Court considered and balanced the factors and concluded that they weighed in favor of redacting social security numbers — not home addresses — from the requested records, with the costs passed on to the requestor.
More recently in
Noting that the case was "a far cry from
As OPRA states, it is only "when disclosure ... would violate the citizen's
The custodians in
In this case, defendants did not present a colorable claim in support of their privacy argument. Consider the context of this appeal. The bidders knew that they were participating in a public auction. The use of paddles, a common practice at auctions, did not suggest otherwise. And the participants knew that they were bidding on seized property forfeited to the government.
Forfeiture proceedings and public auctions of forfeited property are not conducted in private. Before the State can subject property to forfeiture, it must file a complaint and give notice to "any person known to have a property interest in the article." N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(a) to (c). If contested, the matter is then aired in court. N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(f). In addition, the Legislature generally requires government entities to provide public notice in advance of a public auction.
All of those circumstances undermine the notion that a bidder could reasonably expect the auction in this case would be cloaked in privacy. Viewed objectively, it was unreasonable for a buyer to expect that the information requested would remain private. If anything, the sale of government property at a public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for transparency. To guard against possible abuses, the public has a right to know what property was sold, at what price, and to whom. OPRA's plain terms call for disclosure of that type of recorded information, including the names and addresses of successful bidders. To hold otherwise would jeopardize OPRA's purpose: "to maximize public knowledge about public affairs in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded process."
In any event, we agree with Judge Mizdol that the privacy interest asserted in this case was limited. We agree as well that the risk of harm was speculative. Because we conclude that disclosure is required under OPRA, we do not reach plaintiff's claim under the common law.
For the reasons set forth above, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and direct that the records plaintiff requested be disclosed under OPRA.
JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion.