Investigators often gather public information maintained by public bodies, such as individual real estate tax records, criminal tax histories, and civil court records. This information is used in background checks, civil litigation and due diligence investigations. Technological advancements have made personal information in the public domain more readily available. Unfortunately, when in the wrong hands, this data can be abused. Such was the case in the tragic death of Daniel Anderl, the son of United States District Court Judge Esther Salas.

Roy Den Hollander, a self-proclaimed anti-feminist attorney, obtained Judge Salas’ home address, posed as a FedEx driver, and went to the Judge’s home, intending to shoot her. However, her son, Daniel, opened the door for what he believed was a delivery man. Tragically, Hollander then fatally shot him and seriously injured his father.

In response to the threat to judges, law enforcement officers, other public officials, and their immediate families, the New Jersey Legislature passed, and Governor Philip Murphy signed Bill A1649, more commonly known as “Daniel’s Law”, on November 20, 2020. This law amended the existing Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) [1] to exclude from dissemination any personally identifiable information of officers of the court and their immediate families from being made public. This includes data on the internet and other potential public source websites. The bill also contains additional provisions prohibiting government agencies, individuals, and businesses from knowingly publishing the home addresses and telephone numbers of any active or retired judge or prosecutor.

After the bill’s enactment, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said:

Daniel Anderl’s tragic death reminds us that the disclosure of personal information can leave judges and family members vulnerable to threats and violence. We are grateful to the Governor and the Legislature for taking this important step to provide common sense protections for active and retired judges and their families, along with others in the justice system, in the hope that a future tragedy can be prevented.

On December 16, 2022, Congress passed the “Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act”, which provides federal protection of judges’ personally identifiable information from resale by various data brokers. Additionally, the act allows the redaction of federal judges’ personal data from internet sites and prevents the publication of personal information by other businesses.

The goals and protections afforded by these laws are laudable; however, the laws have made access to public records more challenging. Governmental bodies routinely receive requests for a variety of public record information. These bodies must learn to navigate such requests while adhering to the privacy protections outlined in the state and federal laws. Balancing adherence to the legislation while also providing information to the public will be no easy task. Requests will typically take longer to complete, given the fact that these documents must be reviewed for covered information. This potential delay in receiving records should be considered when making such requests to municipalities and other entities controlling public records. This quandary was addressed by Bridgeton, New Jersey Mayor, Albert B. Kelly:

Perhaps more challenging, for smaller municipalities and their clerks, and tax construction and code officials, will be sifting through records to find out not only who is defined as an officer of the court or a law enforcement officer, but who constitutes an “immediate family member. There doesn’t appear to be any system in place for identifying those covered by Daniel’s Law provisions. Nor is there a standardized way to reference such persons when dealing with something like property records.

As a result, Daniel’s Law has increased the difficulty of obtaining the following types of information in New Jersey:

  • Individual real estate tax records – Names of all taxpayers are now redacted only to display the specific property data.
  • Criminal record histories – Sentence information is visible, but offense details are now redacted.
  • Civil record searches – Court records were previously made public; now, an account and specialized login credentials are required to view civil, general equity, and tax court records.

While the provisions of New Jersey’s Daniel’s Law and its subsequent Federal Security and Privacy Act were established to prevent violent attacks on Judiciary and law enforcement personnel and their immediate families, one unintended consequence is that gaining access to public information for lawful purposes has become more complex. As a result, professionals face roadblocks accessing public information. We must be aware of these provisions moving forward and have a clear understanding of the hurdles blocking this information. It is crucial to be mindful of what information is available and what is protected, as well as the increased difficulty in obtaining this information and how to best obtain it.

[1] As defined in the Government Records Council’s Citizen’s Guide to the Open Public Records Act, OPRA is a statute that replaced the previous “Right to Know Law” and governs the access to public records in the state of New Jersey.

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For more information on this topic or for assistance in accessing public records, please contact a member of Withum’s Investigative and Corporate Intelligence Services Team.