Assembly Democrats Benjie E. Wimberly and Shavonda Sumter (Both D- Bergen, Passaic) have introduced legislation to strengthen the anonymity protection of residents who provide information on criminal activity via law enforcement tools such as tip hotlines and websites.
The sponsors said the impetus for this legislation was the numerous concerns raised in Paterson about the lack of enforcement of protection of the tip line caller’s identity and personal information.
“Crime in our communities has escalated exponentially and, unfortunately, so has the fear of families’ who are willing to help but need to do it anonymously,” Wimberly said. “To effectively reduce crime in our communities, everyone – police, residents and businesses—must work together.”
The bill (A-4175) requires safeguards for anonymity and confidentiality with respect to dedicated tip lines, websites and other means of communication anonymous tips for use by law enforcement in criminal investigations.
“Many residents want to participate in cleaning up criminal activity in their communities,” Sumter said. “But often residents fear reprisal and do not believe that their anonymity is taken very seriously.”
Under the bill, the following safeguards would be put in place:
(1) a requirement that any private or governmental entity (including law enforcement entity) operating, or contracting or coordinating with another party operating such a dedicated system for accepting anonymous tips would have to encrypt the communication so that the identity of the individual tipster, the indentifying information (i.e., phone number), and the location within a municipality, are not included in the information made available to the investigating law enforcement agency;
(2) the system operator, as well as the investigating law enforcement agency, at the time of the communication and thereafter, would be prohibited form requesting the individual tipster’s identity, or location information that is more detailed that that provided with the tipster’s communication as to municipality;
(3) any communications, and any report or information on that communication, if made, maintained or kept on file by the system operator or by the investigating law enforcement agency would not be deemed a public record under the state’s Open Public Records Act and thus shielded from Public Disclosure;
(4) and that any such communication, and related report or information would also not be subject to discovery or admissible in evidence in any criminal or civil action or proceeding undertaken by any governmental entity, private entity, or individual, except upon subpoena issued by a grand jury or a court for a matter concerning the crime or offense committed by the individual making the communication.
The bill would make disclosing a communication, or related report or information on that communication a crime of the fourth degree. It would also be a crime of the fourth degree if an individual attempts to obtain a communication, or report or information, with the intent of making an unlawful disclosure. Fourth degree crimes are punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.
Under the bill, if the disclosing individual was a government official, officer, or employee acting color of law, then the governmental entity for whom the individual is an official, officer, or employee would be liable, in a civil action, to the individual whose anonymity or other information was disclosed, for damages arising from the disclosure, or $25,000, whichever amount is greater, plus attorney’s fees and costs.
“Residents should feel comfortable in helping authorities prevent criminal activity and solve crimes. For this to happen, then ‘anonymous’ must mean exactly that, anonymous,” added Wimberly.
“New Jersey law should protect residents who wish to provide valuable information, help reduce crime and improve their neighborhoods,” Sumter continued.
The bill was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.