Government records are often a valuable tool for obtaining information relevant to a buyer’s due diligence, litigation, consideration of land use applications, and similar legal issues. Keep in mind, however, that the information received is only as reliable as the accuracy and precision of the search and/or OPRA request.
Open Public Records Act
The New Jersey Open Public Records Act, NJSA 47:1A-1 et seq., mirrors the open public records laws typical of all states and federal government. Access to government records arises out of our constitutional rights. Therefore, most records are available, so long as they are not subject to express exceptions to being produced, such as records pertaining to ongoing investigations, victims of crime, attorney client privilege, trade secrets, security, personal firearms records, and similar sensitive data. In New Jersey, 25 categories of data are excepted from production.
Information on how to submit OPRA requests to the State is available at: https://nj.gov/opra/. For requests of municipalities and counties, visit their website or call their clerk to determine the proper contact person and required form for their OPRA requests. Keep in mind that government entities do not have an obligation to conduct research on behalf of a requestor, and requests must be clear and well defined. Records may be viewed in person at the government office, or copies may be obtained for a fee.
In our digital world, searchable, online government records are increasingly available. In New Jersey, many counties have funded online registries of deeds, allowing quick access to deeds, easements, mortgage information, and similar records. (For example, Mercer County: https://records.mercercounty.org/or_wb1/default.asp). Many municipalities have searchable municipal ordinances available online, accessible through links on the official municipal website. For decades, government agencies have collected geographically linked data, making online mapping of extensive data available in just a few clicks. For example, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection NJ-GeoWeb provides instant access to known data on the believed location of natural, cultural, and historic resources. (https://www.nj.gov/dep/gis/geowebsplash.htm). And parties seeking information on existing NJ business entities can search records at the NJ Business Gateway: https://www.njportal.com/DOR/businessrecords/. Additional online records are available pertaining to other data.
Benefits and Limitations of OPRA and Online Data
These online, searchable databases provide quick access and the ability to search using key words, decreasing the amount of time spent on matters. However, it is also important to understand the disclaimers and limitations of online data. Most registries of deeds only provide unofficial copies online: for legally valid title searches and similar, examiners must still conduct searches of the official county records. The data available through NJDEP’s GeoWeb is a rebuttable presumption in many circumstances. For example, anticipated locations of wetlands must be verified by obtaining a wetlands delineation. Regarding OPRA searches, I have occasionally experienced gaps in the documents produced. Therefore, where records are not produced after an OPRA request, the presumption is that no such records exist, unless the agency denied the request due to an exception. Therefore, further inquiries should be made to confirm documents are not in the possession of a different government office or private parties.