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Facing hefty fines, companies ask judge to declare Daniel’s Law unconstitutional

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Facing hefty fines, companies ask judge to declare Daniel’s Law unconstitutional

Jun 12, 2024 | 7:06 am ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Facing hefty fines, companies ask judge to declare Daniel’s Law unconstitutional
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The businesses argue in a new court filing that Daniel's Law is unconstitutionally vague, impermissibly restrictive, and unsuccessful in guarding officials' addresses. (Illustration by Alex Cochran for New Jersey Monitor)

A legal fight is brewing over an increasingly expansive New Jersey statute called Daniel’s Law that bars the release of addresses and other personal information belonging to judges, prosecutors, and a growing list of public officials.

On Monday, scores of data brokers, real estate firms, marketing businesses, and other companies asked a federal judge to declare Daniel’s Law unconstitutional, saying it is an impermissibly overbroad violation of the First Amendment.

“Although Daniel’s Law was intended to serve the state’s interest in enhancing the safety of judges, law enforcement officers, and other public officials, it is not sufficiently tailored to advancing that purpose, as required by the Constitution, and it is also unconstitutionally vague in critical respects,” the filing reads.

Facing hefty fines, companies ask judge to declare Daniel’s Law unconstitutional
Judge Ester Salas speaks before Gov. Phil Murphy signed Daniel’s Law on Nov. 20, 2020. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)

This represents the latest legal challenge to Daniel’s Law, a statute enacted in 2020 after the attempted assassination of federal Judge Esther Salas left the judge’s son, Daniel Anderl, dead and her husband critically wounded.

It also comes after lawmakers have moved to expand the list of officials the law covers. Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that would bar disclosure of personal information concerning child protective investigators and made a host of other changes that enabled lawsuits.

A bill introduced in May would cover court administrators and deputy court administrators.

The filing is a consolidated response to more than 100 lawsuits lodged by a company called Atlas Data Privacy that allege it asked the companies to remove the addresses and other personal information of people covered by the statute and the companies failed to comply. The firm was founded after the enactment of Daniel’s Law.

Atlas’ lawsuits were filed on behalf of more than 19,000 individuals covered by Daniel’s Law after sending tens of thousands of takedown requests.

“In these tumultuous times, it is critical that the most sensitive personal information of those who serve the public be protected from unwarranted disclosure,” says one of the lawsuits, which alleges that police officers have been targeted by ex-inmates and others who find the officers’ home addresses online.

Atlas alleges the companies it has sued owe it damages that would likely creep into the tens of millions of dollars. In a statement, Atlas President Matt Adkison charged the companies’ motion was a bid to keep their businesses afloat.

“At a time when threats against judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers are skyrocketing, the message from these multi-billion-dollar companies is clear: Daniel’s Law is too great a threat to their business models and must be overturned no matter the human cost,” he said.

But the companies sued by Atlas say the law has failed to accomplish its stated purpose of protecting individuals’ personal information and that Atlas’ “misuse” of the law illustrates its over-broadness.

The law requires private entities to remove information that also appears in property records that governments, by law, are barred from redacting, the defendants note. Names and addresses for some of the named plaintiffs, each of whom is covered by Daniel’s Law, were readily available online from government websites, the defendants said.

“These contradictions and holes in the statute’s coverage imply that, as currently constructed, Daniel’s Law is not effectively designed to reduce danger to public officials,” reads Monday’s filing, a motion to dismiss Atlas’ lawsuits.

The defendants further argue that Daniel’s Law includes no verification requirement to confirm that takedown requests to private entities are filed by people covered by the law. That requirement was removed in 2023 by the same bill that made damages mandatory under Daniel’s Law.

They added the short timeline to respond to takedown requests — private entities get only 10 business days while governments get 30 — all but ensures businesses will pay damages “when tens of thousands of notifications are intentionally sent en masse within a short time period in a purposeful effort to frustrate timely compliance, as Atlas did here.”

Raj Parikh, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not respond to a request for comment. Attorney General Matt Platkin will intervene in the case to defend Daniel’s Law.

“Daniel’s Law is a critical law that protects the safety of our judges and law enforcement officers, and we look forward to defending its constitutionality in court,” said a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General.

Judge Harvey Bartle III of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District is presiding over the case. Salas is a judge in the District of New Jersey.

Bartle is due to rule on the defendants’ motion to dismiss on July 15, and he’s set a June 15 deadline for outside parties to seek to join the case as friends of the court.

The case isn’t the first to challenge the constitutionality of Daniel’s Law. Last September, a Superior Court judge ruled against Charlie Kratovil, the editor of New Brunswick Today, after he asked the court to bar criminal charges over Daniel’s Law.

The editor argued the law violated his freedom of speech. Officials cited the law when it sought to bar him from publishing the address of the city’s now-former police director, who lives hours away from New Brunswick in Cape May County.

Kratovil did not publish the police director’s address but named the street he lives on during a council meeting and gave council members documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act that showed his address.

A panel of appellate judges affirmed the lower court ruling in April, and Kratovil has petitioned the case, which turns on different arguments than the Atlas suit, to the New Jersey Supreme Court.