Judge differs with Warren County regarding disclosure of a civil complaint alleging s
Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for, among other records, a copy of the civil complaint filed C.C. v. County of Warren, Docket No. WRN-L-17-15. In this case, which is still pending, a teenage boy alleged that a Warren County official sexually molested him on four occasions in 1988 and 1989 during transports between the Warren County Juvenile Detention Facility and other locations. C.C. was between 14 and 16 at the time.
In his letter, Charlton explained that he redacted from the requested records the "identity of the accused" official. Typical is the redaction applied to paragraph 17 of the complaint: "Each of the four (4) instances of abuse occurred when John Doe 1, the then Warren County [redacted], volunteered and was authorized by County officials to personally transport C.C. to or from County facilities." It was Charlton's position that the public wasn't permitted to know the position that the accused pedophile held with the County. The twenty-three page, redacted complaint is on-line here.
Charlton's primary justification for the redactions was the Child Sexual Abuse Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:61B-1(f) which states that "The name, address, and identity of a victim or a defendant shall not appear on the complaint or any other public record as defined in [the OPRA]. In their place initials or a fictitious name shall appear." Thus, Charlton asserted, the position held by the alleged pedophile needed to be suppressed to prevent the public from identifying him.
Given extensive media coverage of pedophilia accusations regarding a particular Warren County official, it was not hard for me to guess the identity of the defendant and which office he held. Yet, I wanted to be able to name the defendant in my writings about this complaint without having to worry that I might be defaming someone.
Accordingly, on February 20, 2017, Libertarians for Transparent Government, a non-profit for which I serve as executive director, filed a New Jersey Judiciary Request Form with the Warren County Civil Division Manager's office. The request sought to determine whether the state court system would agree or disagree with Charlton's position that the accused pedophile's County position was permissibly redacted from the complaint. In order to simplify the matter, the request sought only the 4th, 5th and 6th pages of the civil complaint. Those pages were heavily redacted and would, if disclosed in unredacted form, disclose the position held by the defendant.
In her February 22, 2017 letter in response to my request, Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone disagreed with Charlton's assessment. She wrote that while Court Rule 1:38 (the rule that governs disclosure of court records) "does exempt from disclosure of numerous documents relating to victims of abuse, it does not equally protect the identities of alleged perpetrators." She further explained that "the purpose of R.1:38 is to encourage transparency between government and its citizens."
Accompanying Judge Ciccone's letter were unredacted versions of the 4th, 5th and 6th pages of the civil complaint. They clearly show that Defendant John Doe 1 was "the then Warren County Sheriff." Public records and media accounts confirm that the Sheriff of Warren County in 1988 and 1989 was Edward Bullock, who according to a November 18, 2015 news article, passed away on November 16, 2015.
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