NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A New Jersey county prosecutor whose office was ordered to pay attorneys’ fees to two news organizations had defended his decision not to release the recording of a 911 call involving a fatal police shooting.
The call was made in January 2015 before police shot and killed a knife-wielding man in his Old Bridge residence. The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office sought to block its release on the grounds that it revealed personal information. An edited version eventually was released after a judge denied the request to keep the tape private.
The Home News-Tribune and NJ Advance Media had argued the entire call was a matter of public interest because it involved a person who was killed by police. They also argued that the identity of the caller was public information, therefore pre-empting any argument based on privacy concerns. Friday’s ruling by a three-judge appellate panel upheld a judge’s 2015 decision that awarded about $71,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees to the Home News-Tribune and about $39,000 to NJ Advance Media.
Prosecutor Andrew Carey said he respected what reporters do, but the litigation had “very little to do with First Amendment Rights, and everything to do with common decency and protecting the privacy rights of those who may find themselves in a horrific situation.”
Carey said the law at the time of the request “was not at all clear as to whether the recording was subject to disclosure” and the family didn’t want it released. He said a judge agreed that prosecutors didn’t have to release the portion of the tape with audio from distressed family members. But he said since the rest of the audio was released the plaintiffs had prevailed and were entitled to recover what the prosecutor called “an incredibly high amount” of attorneys’ fees.
“It would have been wrong to release the recording of the wife and son who had just lost an emotionally distraught husband and father to a bullet,” Carey said.