Privacy Update: Bozzi v. City of Jersey City

On September 20, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bozzi v. City of Jersey City, in which the Court held that the names and home addresses of licensed dog owners are public records because “owning a dog is a substantially public endeavor in which people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy”.  The Court’s opinion is hereBozzi builds on the Court’s opinion in Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, in which the Court held that the names and addresses of successful bidders at an auction of sports memorabilia that was seized in connection with a criminal investigation were public records.  Bozzi is important for several reasons.

First, the Court noted the continued inaction of the Legislature regarding whether home addresses are subject to OPRA.  While specific categories of home addresses are exempt from disclosure, for example, the address of a person who has been issued a hunting license, the Court noted that the Legislature has never acted on the recommendation of the Privacy Commission that individuals be notified that their home addresses may be disclosed or be given the opportunity to use an address of record for disclosure purposes.  Thus, the Court continued to apply the default rule that a home address is a public record, unless exempt under a specific law, regulation or other authority.

Second, the Court held that the commercial nature of the request was “immaterial.”  A commercial requestor “has the same right” to records as an individual requestor.  One of the views that has circulated among public officials is that public resources should not be utilized to fulfill, without charge, commercial requests.  Bozzi rejects this view.  Just like OPRA does not distinguish between requests made by citizens or non-citizens, neither does OPRA distinguish between commercial requests and personal requests.  Like the Legislature’s inaction on the recommendations of the Privacy Commission, the Legislature could have differentiated between such requests, but they have not.

Third, the Court held that dog owners have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their names and home addresses because dog ownership is a “public endeavor.”  The Court discussed how owners and dogs are: (1) “regularly exposed to the public during daily walks, grooming sessions, and veterinarian visits;” (2) celebrated on social media and bumper stickers; (3) frequently visit parks dedicated to dogs; and (4) enter their dogs in competitions and social media.  This description of what constitutes a “public endeavor” that would justify linking an activity with a person’s name and home address could encompass a broad spectrum of activities.

But while the “public endeavor” test may seem to capture any activity that takes place in public, the Court also limited disclosure of other information that “would give rise to security concerns,” such as breed information, the purpose of the dog, or the name of the dog.  Disclosure of breed information could reveal the presence of a valuable breed that could be targeted for theft.  Disclosure of the “purpose” of the dog could reveal that a person has a service animal or that the dog is a “law enforcement dog.”  Disclosure of names of dogs could reveal passwords or “answers to important security questions.”

Yet a bright-line test for when personally identifiable information remains elusive.  Whether names of residents may be linked to home addresses is highly sensitive to who possesses the information, how it was received, and whether any law declares that information exempt, declares it public, or is silent on the issue.  For example, the names and addresses of property owners in real property tax records maintained by municipalities, counties, and the State of New Jersey are public.  But that same information contained within tax returns or school records is exempt.  Whether names and home addresses may be linked to other identifying characteristics will likely continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis.