TRENTON - A 2014 law requiring all New Jersey municipalities to outfit new police patrol cars with dashboard cameras is unconstitutional because it does not provide an adequate funding source, a state board ruled Wednesday.
The ruling by the Council on Local Mandates on a challenge brought by Deptford Township, Gloucester County, could relieve stress on municipal budgets across the state. The council did not weigh in on the merits of the politically charged debate over the utility of dashboard and body cameras in improving police accountability.
Instead of dashboard cameras, the law says, officers could wear body cameras. The law applies to police vehicles and officers primarily involved in traffic stops.
Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have police body camera laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Deptford argued that the $25 surcharge on driving-while-intoxicated penalties provided under the law does not generate enough money to pay for the necessary equipment.
Police chiefs in several other South Jersey municipalities agree, but say they still plan to purchase body cameras because the cameras hold officers and residents more accountable, and make it easier to review complaints from the public - potentially preventing costly legal battles between complainants and municipalities.
Maple Shade Police Chief Gary Gubbei said he would fund body cameras through drug forfeiture money, a resource many departments use to purchase cameras, and through the department's budget.
The estimated cost of purchasing cameras for the township's 32 officers is $60,000, he said, and that does not include the price tag for storage. The $25 DWI surcharge is "definitely not enough" to cover the overall cost, he said.
"You're talking some serious money," Gubbei said.
The Camden County Police Department, which patrols just Camden City, is paying $260,145 to purchase 325 cameras for officers. The software and equipment needed to operate and store footage will cost an additional $209,000.
Deptford Mayor Paul Medany said a few of his department's cars already have dashboard cameras, but added that "the jury's way out on body cameras."
He said the township probably would not buy more dashboard cameras this year "because we didn't put them in the budget pending the outcome of all this." But he didn't rule out the possibility of buying more.
In September, the nine-member Council on Local Mandates issued a temporary injunction blocking implementation of the measure, signed into law by Gov. Christie.
In its six-page opinion Wednesday, the council described the funding mechanism as "illusory."
The evidence submitted by Deptford, it said, showed that the surcharge "would fall far short of funding the installation of either a vehicle-mounted or body-worn mobile video recording system."
Deptford presented the council with offers from two vendors. One offered the township a body-camera system that would cost $251,980 over five years, accounting for installation, warranties, service, hardware upgrades, and other costs.
DWI convictions would cover less than 6 percent of the cost, Deptford told the council. The state did not challenge those figures or offer its own estimates, according to the opinion.
The council is independent of the three branches of government. It was established in 1995 via a constitutional amendment that empowered it to "resolve any dispute regarding whether a law or rule or regulation issued pursuant to a law constitutes an unfunded mandate."
Acting Chair John A. Sweeney, a former assignment judge from Burlington County, said the ruling could not be appealed because the council operates outside the judicial system.
The council's members are appointed by the governor, legislative leaders, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Its decisions are considered "political and not judicial," according to the 1995 amendment, leaving open the question of how it could be expected to interpret the law better than the courts could.
When the council rules against the state, "I'm not sure the state has rights in a sense that this would violate due process or something," said Robert F. Williams, a professor of state constitutional law at Rutgers University. "It feels to me like that's it. It's never been tested that I know of."
The state Attorney General's Office declined to comment.
Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty (D., Gloucester), who sponsored the camera legislation - and whose drunken-driving charges from a July 2012 stop in Turnersville were dismissed after a camera in a police cruiser showed he was driving normally - slammed the council's decision and called on the attorney general to work to overturn it.
"The Council on Local Mandates simply has no authority to declare what constitutes adequate funding for any statute, let alone one that has the potential to be such a monumental step forward for public safety in New Jersey," Moriarty said in a statement.
"The value of this law cannot be cast aside simply because of a single claim made by one unauthorized and unqualified entity."
Medany described the ruling as a "win for every municipality in the state."
It sends a "message that when you do knee-jerk legislation, make sure you examine all the costs and what it costs" municipalities, he said.
Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which has strongly advocated for body cameras, said that the purchasing and storage costs for municipalities are an "incredibly important consideration," but that there are ways to reduce the price.
He suggested, for example, that municipalities could use the same infrastructure to store footage instead of different ones.
"There's no reason why every municipality in New Jersey should have to build their own internal infrastructure of data storage," Ofer said.
Separately, Christie in July announced that the state police would spend $1.5 million to acquire 1,000 body cameras for troopers. The council's ruling does not affect the state police.