Blacking out ... a scary trend that needs to be reversed
Gary King, editor | Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013
Once upon a time in a village near Chicago, a man by the name of Jason Senne received a parking ticket. The outside of the ticket has a list of all his personal information, including his full name, address, driver’s license number, date of birth … and weight.
Senne wasn’t very happy about that. He filed a lawsuit against the village, citing the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, a long-ignored law passed by Congress 20 years ago, designed to prevent states from selling information found in DMV records.
Senne lost his case but appealed, and in August of 2012, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him, ruling the village was in violation of federal law by placing his personal information on a ticket stuck in his windshield, where the public could see it.
Over the past year, agencies across Wisconsin, fearing a similar lawsuit, began redacting, or blacking out, all personal information in accident reports released to the public and media.
Some 56 municipalities in the state now redact such information as a rule. For instance, the Washburn County Sheriff’s Department. We no longer publish a sheriff’s report in our newspaper that covers that county - the Washburn County Register - since the sheriff’s department adopted a redaction policy.
Some sheriffs and agency heads are in disagreement with the practice but feel they need to take the advice of their legal counsels to heart.
Bill Lueders, who writes a column for the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, has called redaction of public information “ … one of the most serious threats to open government that we’ve ever seen.”
The trend of redaction has obviously caught a lot of people by surprise, including news reporters, who may find it difficult to get the age or full identity of victims in a fatal industrial accident, for example.
Maybe it’s the leader of a neighborhood watch group who can’t find the address of someone arrested for dealing drugs in that neighborhood.
A Sheboygan Falls woman spent days trying to find the identify of someone who crashed into her daughter’s car after police wouldn’t give her an unredacted report. She finally tracked down the information through the state DOT but wonders why it was that difficult. Protecting the party involved is fine, she said, but what about protection for her daughter?
Fortunately, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is on the case, working on behalf of its member newspapers to regain public access to public records - specifically information obtained through DMV records.
“All possible strategies are being explored and efforts are underway to bring all players to the table for a discussion,” noted a recent message from WNA.
Earlier this year, the New Richmond News filed a lawsuit against the city of New Richmond, alleging the city’s police department is unreasonably restricting access to timely information on accident an incident reports, on the basis of “alleged misinterpretation of a recent U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit ruling.” The case is awaiting a federal court decision on the newspaper’s motion to return jurisdiction to St. Croix County Circuit Court.”
Bob Dreps, an attorney with Godfrey and Kahn, is representing the paper’s publisher, Steve Dzubay.
Dreps cites a 2008 opinion from Wisconsin's Attorney General that says, "We are not aware of any court, state or federal, including Senne, that has held the DPPA was intended to restrict the public's right of access to law enforcement records under any state's laws."
The opinion goes on to say, "From at least the time of the Magna Carta and the formalization of the writ of habeas corpus, the concealment of the reason for arrest has been as odious as the concealment of the arrest itself. It is fundamental to a free society that the fact of arrest and the reason for arrest be available to the public."
It’s understandable how the redaction issue became so popular so fast. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities was a catalyst in this issue, and municipalities across the state often look to the group for guidance. The league issued a statement in November of 2012 which said, in part, “ … law enforcement agencies should evaluate all the ways in which they use information obtained from DMV records in order to avoid violating the Drivers Privacy Protection Act.”
The vigilance displayed by the WNA and the New Richmond News in fighting the advancement of what could become a dangerous trend, should be commended … and will eventually be successful. But not without public support.
Are you in favor of redaction? Weigh in on our website poll.