New Jersey Police Can No Longer Shred Interview Notes
In a victory for New Jersey criminal defense attorneys, the state’s highest court ruled that law enforcement officers may not destroy the written notes they take at crime scenes or while interviewing witnesses, victims and suspects, and must make them available to defense lawyers.
It was a divided decision on an issue opposed by law enforcement officials who argued that it will impose additional costs on police departments that are already facing budget shortfalls and that another layer of administrative review will have to be added to ensure the authenticity of the notes.
The New Jersey Supreme Court had previously ruled that law enforcement officers had to retain their notes, but criminal defense attorneys had no means of forcing departments to provide them. With the current ruling, officers can be sanctioned for destroying or failing to turn over their written notes, and a court can direct a jury that an officer’s failure to produce his or her notes can be a factor in determining his or her credibility as a witness.
The court stated that it was time to join other states in imposing sanctions whenever an officer’s written notes are not preserved, adding that an officer’s notes can be helpful to the defense. Criminal attorneys can compare an officer’s written notes with the completed police or investigation reports to look for inconsistencies and errors in observations or in procedures.
In the past, police departments routinely destroyed an officer’s notes after they were incorporated into a typed or official report, or so they advised criminal defense attorneys who asked for copies of the notes as part of their discovery requests.
Criminal justice experts hailed the decision as a victory for accountability and for maintaining a systematic approach to effective policing.
In New York, an officer’s notes are incorporated in a special notebook that produces duplicate copies. The notes require the signature of a supervisor as a protection against tampering. New Jersey law enforcement can look to other states, like New York, to see how they can effectively comply with the new ruling while minimizing inconvenience and cost.