Traffic-Accident Redactions Hit High Court

     MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Endorsing a city’s broad reading of a driver-policy law would give local governments carte blanche to hush up bad behavior, attorneys for a newspaper told the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday.
     The case stems from justifications that the city of New Richmond gave when the local newspaper asked it to release certain public records, specifically copies of traffic-accident and other incident reports.
     When the city turned over two car-collision reports and one report of gas theft, it redacted all identifying information about drivers, their cars and witnesses, citing the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.
     Enacted to prevent stalkers from tracking down their victims, and to prevent states from selling names and addresses to direct-mail promotion companies, the DPPA usually governs disclosures by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
     The New Richmond News and its publisher filed suit in 2013, telling the St. Croix County Circuit that police reports were public records under state law.
     Judge Howard Cameron Jr. sided with the newspaper, setting up today’s hearing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
     Despite the icy atmosphere between the court’s recently elected chief, Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, and her predecessor for that seat, Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the newspaper’s attorney had the court laughing when he argued the city’s interpretation of the law would make Wisconsin the only state to let the DPPA pre-empt state law.
     “On the question of federal law, the cheese should not stand alone,” said Robert Dreps, an attorney for the New Richmond News with the firm Godfrey Kahn.
     The city’s attorney, Remzy Bitar of Crivello Carlson, argued during rebuttal that the newspaper’s interpretation takes open records too far.
     “If their interpretation is correct, they swallow the entire DPPA,” he told the court.
     Such a fate might broadcast the information of crime victims across media platforms the Monday after an incident, Bitar said.
     Municipalities should be able to “affect a restrained approach,” only releasing records if the requester discloses his identity and purpose, Bitar added. Furthermore, the city would require that purpose to fall within one of the 14 exceptions to the DPPA.
     Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said she worried about cities abusing this privacy, recalling a time during her career in municipal government when she was asked to hush up police reports involving prominent public figures.
     The thought of that, she said, “sends shivers down my spine.”
     When Bitar answered that she, as a prosecutor, could have obtained the information under one of the DPPA’s exceptions, Bradley shot back: “They weren’t concerned about helping me do my job. They were concerned about keeping this quiet.”
     To bolster its request, the newspaper supplied the court with a 2008 informal opinion from the state attorney general, a letter that says the DPPA permits disclosure of information to fulfill a governmental function – in this case, responding to an open-records request.
     New Richmond meanwhile pointed to a Seventh Circuit decision in which the federal appeals court cautioned that “municipalities face serious penalties through unlawful disclosure of personal information contained in DMV records.”
     “Since 2012, due to new federal precedent, Wisconsin municipalities proceed cautiously and in some cases redact personal information,” the city said in its brief.
     Cameron ruling on the pleadings that the newspaper’s case differed meaningfully from the Seventh Circuit case.
     Two municipal insurers slammed Cameron’s decision in a friend-of-the-court brief for the city’s appeal, arguing the DPPA contains “no exception in the DPPA for news reporting.”
     “The circuit court decision is contrary to established precedent, flatly inconsistent with the DPPA’s purpose, and creates significant liability for Wisconsin municipalities,” attorneys for the insurers with Axley Brynelson said. “It must be reversed.”
     The Wisconsin Department of Justice filed a brief standing by its 2008 opinion, while the League of Wisconsin Municipalities urged the Supreme Court to clarify the law for local governments and law-enforcement agencies.
     The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a joint brief in support of the New Richmond News, arguing that nothing in the DPPA pre-empts Wisconsin open-records law.
     “If the case for preemption were clear, custodians would have begun redacting accident and incident reports shortly after the DPPA’s passage in 1994,” according to the brief from attorneys McGillivray Westerberg & Bender.

%d bloggers like this: