Monday, September 20, 2021

Don't Fence Me In

The New Jersey Supreme Court found no right of privacy in certain dog licensing records

The Court considers whether owning a dog creates an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy such that the owner’s personal information in the dog licensing record might be exempt from disclosure under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

Plaintiff Ernest Bozzi requested copies of defendant Jersey City’s most recent dog license records pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access. Plaintiff, a licensed home improvement contractor, sought the information on behalf of his invisible fence installation business. Plaintiff noted that Jersey City may redact information relating to the breed of the dog, the purpose of the dog, and any phone numbers associated with the records. He sought only the names and addresses of the dog owners.

Jersey City opposed disclosure but

Owners and their dogs are regularly exposed to the public during daily walks, grooming sessions, and veterinarian visits. Dog owners who continually expose their dogs to the public cannot claim that dog ownership is a private undertaking...

While plaintiff here has requested only the names and addresses of dog owners, the Court stresses that there are other parts of the dog licensing records that would give rise to security concerns. Any similar disclosure of dog records should not include breed information or the purpose of the animal, and the names of dogs may need to be excluded. 

Because Jersey City has not established a colorable claim that public access to the names and addresses of dog owners would violate a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Court need not conduct an extended Doe analysis. The Court agrees with the evaluation of the trial court that the factors collectively favor disclosure. The Court continues to abide by the plain language of OPRA and its fundamental policy favoring disclosure.


In Justice Pierre-Louis’s view, that reasonable expectation of privacy should recognize every citizen’s right not to have each and every piece of information provided to the government divulged for reasons that do not further the purpose of OPRA, and the fact that information may be available elsewhere does not eliminate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy altogether. Noting that the information sought here -- name, address, and dog ownership -- taken together, is not public, Justice Pierre-Louis finds it reasonable that dog owners would have expected that the information they provided to Jersey City for the sole purpose of complying with the law by obtaining a dog license would remain private. Justice Pierre-Louis reviews the Doe privacy factors and finds that five out of seven factors also militate against disclosure.

The quoted portions come from the court's headnotes. (Mike Frisch)

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