Richard Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor’s Office, 250 N.J. 124 (2022)


In February 2019, employees from the Elizabeth Police Department filed a complaint with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (UCPO) alleging that the long-time police director routinely referred to employees using racial and sexist slurs. UCPO’s two-month investigation upheld the complaint. The complainants talked to the press and, as a result of public pressure and a request by the Attorney General, the police director resigned.

In July 2019, Richard Rivera — currently a police director himself — filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request seeking the former police director’s internal affairs reports. UCPO denied Rivera’s request, claiming the report was exempt under the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy and that disclosure of the report could hamper future investigations and violate the witnesses’ privacy. The Stein Public Interest Center’s CJ Griffin filed a lawsuit on Rivera’s behalf.

The case ultimately reached the N.J. Supreme Court, which issued a unanimous decision in March 2022. The decision, authored by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, concluded that although the reports were exempt from access under OPRA, access should be granted under the common law right of access because such transparency is in the public interest.

“Racist and sexist conduct by the civilian head of a police department violates the public’s trust in law enforcement,” Rabner wrote. “It undermines confidence in law enforcement officers generally, including the thousands of professionals who serve the public honorably. Public access helps deter instances of misconduct and ensure an appropriate response when misconduct occurs.”

Importantly, the decision did not just compel release of the police director’s internal affairs report; it also created specific factors—now called “Rivera factors”—for agencies to consider when receiving future requests for other internal affairs reports.

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