Prosecutor's bill to ACLU for public records gets scrapped by judge

NEW BRUNSWICK -- Fees imposed by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office to respond to the American Civil Liberties Union's public records request on civil forfeitures were unjustified and need not be paid, a judge ruled Friday. The prosecutor's...

Prosecutor's bill to ACLU for public records gets scrapped by judge

NEW BRUNSWICK -- Fees imposed by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office to respond to the American Civil Liberties Union's public records request on civil forfeitures were unjustified and need not be paid, a judge ruled Friday.

The prosecutor's office contended that a "special service charge" of $685.18 was needed to pay for 21 hours of work by two employees to gather and review the records.

The ACLU of New Jersey sued in November claiming the fees violated the state's open public records act. The original request for records was filed in June seeking five months documents on the the property and cash seized by local law enforcement during criminal investigations, according to the suit. 

James O'Neill, who is prosecutor's office custodian of records and named in the suit, responded to the request stating it would cost $685.18 for 11 work hours from a clerk to gather the 109 documents and 10 work hours for an agent to redact the 728 pages, according to court documents. 

Similar requests were sent to the state's other prosecutors' offices, all of which provided the information, charging the ACLU only the cost of the CD or copies with the information.

Superior Court Judge Travis Francis ruled that the fees were unwarranted since the process did not require a "Herculean effort," citing the compliance of other agencies. He ordered the office to release the records.

The ACLU is only responsible for the $36.67 state mandated fee for copies, according to the ruling. 

The prosecutor's office declined to comment. 

"The combination of civil asset forfeiture and criminal charges can be financially devastating," said ACLU-NJ Attorney Iris Bromberg. "The public deserves to know how much property local government seizes from our neighborhoods."

The ACLU filed a separate lawsuit in September in Hudson County claiming authorities abused the process in charging Jermaine Mitchell $175 to get $171 in seized cash back. 

Craig McCarthy may be reached at CMcCarthy@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @createcraig and on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook

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