Lawsuit challenges law that shields home addresses of judges, law enforcement

By: - July 13, 2023 6:59 am

The lawsuits comes as more state and local officials are permitted to shield their home addresses from the public, citing security concerns. (Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

A New Jersey law that shields the home addresses of judges and law enforcement officers from the public is unconstitutional when applied to journalists seeking to report on public officials, the American Civil Liberties of New Jersey argues in a new lawsuit targeting New Brunswick officials.

The statute, known as Daniel’s Law, makes it more difficult for journalists to ascertain the addresses of public officials, and in some cases “creates a chilling fear of criminal and civil prosecution,” the ACLU said in a brief in the case, filed Wednesday in state Superior Court in Middlesex County.

The ACLU in this case represents Charlie Kratovil, the editor of New Brunswick Today, who was served with a cease-and-desist notice by New Brunswick’s police director, Anthony Caputo, after Kratovil said during a public meeting that Caputo lives on a specific street in Cape May, according to the complaint. Kratovil obtained the address through a public records request of Caputo’s voting profile.

The notice said revealing Caputo’s home address violates Daniel’s Law — a warning, the ACLU says, that Kratovil could face criminal prosecution if he ends up reporting on the matter.

Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ’s legal director, said invoking the law in certain cases violates the First Amendment and journalists’ rights to report “on newsworthy issues related to the actual residency of protected officials using lawfully obtained, truthful information.”

“By threatening criminal and civil sanctions for reporting on truthful, legally obtained information, the city and its director of police unconstitutionally chill Mr. Kratovil’s free speech and free press rights,” she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed Daniel’s Law in November 2020 after the son of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas was killed by a disgruntled attorney at Salas’s home. The law prohibits government agencies from posting the home addresses of active and retired judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers, plus some of their family members, and bars anyone from doing the same.

The ACLU argues that Kratovil’s reporting on Caputo’s home address is at the core of protected free speech regarding local government activities, and says Caputo’s cease-and-desist notice represents an unconstitutional attempt to prevent Kratovil from publishing any stories on Caputo’s residency.

“Whether the city’s police director and vice chair of a powerful local government board should live so far from New Brunswick is a matter of public concern that plaintiff has every intention to write and speak about as a journalist,” the ACLU’s brief reads. “The voting address of the police director, and the addresses of other real estate owned by the director, or of other business ventures or sources of income that he may have, are all integral parts of the news story.”

The Legislature has made moves in recent months to prevent the public from finding out where they and local officials live. In March it approved a measure that allows state lawmakers to keep their addresses off financial disclosure forms, and the state Senate gave final approval to a bill that allows local government officials to do the same (Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed that measure in May for technical reasons).

Kratovil has often tussled with New Brunswick officials, and in 2022 unsuccessfully challenged the city’s mayor, Jim Cahill.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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