How public is dog-owner information and should the owners have an expectation of privacy when licensing their pups in their hometown?
New Jersey's highest court this week unleashed a decision that could impact future information-privacy cases in the state and the commercial use of the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The New Jersey Supreme Court decided on September 20 that municipalities must disclose the names and addresses of residents with dog licenses. However, the name and breed of the dog and if it is a companion or service dog do not need to be disclosed in response to an OPRA request, the court said.
"Owning a dog is, inherently, a public endeavor," the court found in its 5-2 decision in Ernest Bozzi v. City of Jersey City. "Owners — and the dogs themselves — are regularly exposed to the public during daily walks, grooming sessions and veterinarian visits. Many owners celebrate their animals on social media or bumper stickers, inherently public platforms."
The court opinion said some owners put up signs at their homes about the dog in residence, go to a dog park or enter their pets into shows or competitions. "Dog owners who continually expose their dogs to the public cannot claim that dog ownership is a private undertaking," the court majority said in the opinion, which affirmed a judgment of the state Appellate Division.
Ernest Bozzi, who is based in Burlington County and operates a company that installs Invisible Fence™ and similar systems to keep dogs in their yards, sought the information under OPRA from Jersey City and other municipalities to market his product to dog owners. His OPRA request asked for only the names and addresses of dog owners.
But Jersey City denied Bozzi's request on two grounds, according to the Supreme Court decision.
"Jersey City alleged that the disclosure would be a violation of the citizens' reasonable expectation of privacy. . .by subjecting the dog owners to unsolicited commercial contact," the opinion stated. The municipality argued that the commercial nature of the request did not "promote government transparency or achieve any of the main goals of OPRA."
Secondly, the municipality "expressed concern that such a disclosure may jeopardize the security of both dog-owners' and non-dog-owners' property."
The Jersey City chief of police stated the department was "exceptionally concerned" about releasing the dog owner names. "Those residing at addresses known not to have dogs on the premises may be exposed as more vulnerable to robbery or burglary," according to the police department's contention. "Further, disclosure may expose the locations of victims who have fled from threats, stalking, and other harm. And finally, knowing an address has a dog may encourage wrongdoers to bring a weapon."
Using the OPRA law to gather information for commercial purposes was directly addressed in the court opinion. In the case, Bozzi's lawyers maintained that nothing in the OPRA law bars requests because they are commercial.
The Libertarians for Transparent Government (LFTG), which filed a brief as a friend of the court, stated that "OPRA does not require records custodians to consider the reason for a given request," according to the opinion. LFTG noted the state Legislature has not passed bills that would have denied commercial entities access under OPRA.
In its opinion, and citing case law, the Supreme Court stated: "The commercial nature of plaintiff's request is immaterial to our analysis; he 'has the same right to [the records] as anyone else.' "
While the LFTG's brief supports Bozzi's case, friend of the court briefs filed by the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, the New Jersey Institute of Local Government Attorneys and the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sided with Jersey City. EPIC argued that "requests for information that are justified only by commercial interests do not serve the purpose of OPRA."
Although the names and addresses of dog owners were public, the court ruled, other information about the canines can remain private.
"We stress that there are other parts of the dog licensing records that would give rise to security concerns," the Supreme Court stated in its opinion. "Any similar disclosure of dog records should not include breed information, which poses a risk to public safety given the high value of certain purebred dogs. Further, the purpose of the animal — whether it is a companion or a service or a law enforcement dog — must be kept confidential for the health and safety of the owners and the dogs."
And, the court said, there was a technological need for privacy: "The names of dogs may need to be excluded, given that many people use the names of their beloved pets as passwords or answers to important security questions."
Affirming the appellate decision were Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Anne M. Patterson, Lee A. Solomon and Faustino J. Fenandez-Vina, who wrote the opinion. Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis filed a dissent, joined by Justice Barry T. Albin.
"The government, at all levels, demands a plethora of personal information from its citizens who must file tax returns, census reports, applications for licenses and other various records as part of the everyday incidents of life," Justice Pierre-Louis stated in her dissent. "But not all of the information we are compelled to give the government belongs in the public domain."
Quoting from case law, she said the "core purpose" of OPRA is to promote transparency in the operation of government. "The names and addresses of all persons who applied for a dog license in a municipality does not implicate the core purpose of ORPA," according to her dissent.