New Upheaval Over Wisconsin Public Records

     WAUSAU, Wis. (CN) — A Wisconsin newspaper fighting for unredacted police records has not yet proven that incident reports are fair game, a state appeals court ruled.
     Wednesday’s ruling calls for more proceedings in battle that the New Richmond News has been waging in St. Croix County for the past three years.
     The newspaper went to court when its request for accident and incident reports from the city of New Richmond yielded records with identifying information redacted.
     Citing the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, New Richmond redacted all identifying information about drivers, their cars and witnesses in reports on two car collisions and one report of gas theft.
     Congress enacted the DPPA, a federal law, to prevent stalkers from tracking down their victims, and to prevent states from selling names and addresses to direct-mail promotion companies.
     St. Croix County Circuit Judge Howard Cameron Jr. sided with the newspaper, but a death within the Wisconsin Supreme Court interrupted the appeals process.
     With the court split evenly on New Richmond’s appeal, the city’s challenge fell to Wisconsin Court of Appeals for a decision.
     A three-judge panel was unanimous Tuesday in chucking part of the ruling about the incident report.
     Though the newspaper argued that releasing the information constitutes a “function” the police department must perform, the appeals court said such logic would force the state department of motor vehicles to release even DPPA-protected information as soon as someone asks for it.
     In short, “accepting the newspaper’s argument would lead to untenable results,” Judge Lisa Stark wrote for the panel.
     Stark added: “Permitting the DMV to disclose personal information every time a public records request was made would eviscerate the protection provided by the DPPA, which was enacted to limit the circumstances in which state DMVs could disclose drivers’ personal information in order to protect their safety and privacy.”
     On remand, the circuit court must decide whether releasing the records constitutes some other governmental function that would exempt it from the DPPA.
     The court must also decide whether the DMV actually provided or merely verified the information that New Richmond redacted.
     The DPPA would protect only information that the DMV provided, according to the ruling.
     Wednesday’s ruling represents only a partial reversal, as the panel sided with the newspaper as to its right to access accident reports.
     “Wisconsin law specifically requires police departments to release accident reports upon request,” Stark wrote, adding that the DPPA contains an exception for when state law allows for the release of records.
     Judges Thomas Hruz and Mark Seidl concurred.
     The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed amicus briefs.

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