Newspaper sues for police recordsNEW RICHMOND, Wis. — The New Richmond News has sued the city of New Richmond, alleging the police department is unreasonably restricting access to timely information on accident and incident reports.
By: Forum News Service, Superior Telegram
NEW RICHMOND, Wis. — The New Richmond News has sued the city of New Richmond, alleging the police department is unreasonably restricting access to timely information on accident and incident reports.
The suit claims the department is misinterpreting a recent ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in St. Croix County Circuit Court, names the city as a defendant because it is responsible for the police department’s actions. It asks the department reverse its policies and pay attorneys’ fees and damages in the case.
The newspaper and the department disagree on the interpretation and application of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act regarding requests for access to law enforcement records under the Open Records Law. The News contends that DPPA doesn’t require removal of personal information before public disclosure under the Open Records Law. The newspaper cites a 2008 Wisconsin attorney general’s ruling in its filing.
The police department contends that DPPA requires redaction or blacking out of identifying information — names, address, birth dates and driver’s license numbers — before records are released if that information came from motor vehicle records maintained by the Department of Transportation.
Kristina Williamson, representing the city, said the department stands by its decision to restrict the release of identifying information.
“While I sympathize with the position of the newspaper, we are taking the position which we believe we are required to take, according to the current state of the law,” Williamson said.
In early January, the News requested several accident and incident reports from the police. Police Chief Mark Samelstad released the reports about 10 days later with names, addresses and birth dates blacked out.
Before mid-December, such information was routinely provided to the newspaper immediately or once a police investigation had been completed.
“Although Chief Samelstad has been candid in talks about our disagreement, and fairly swift to respond to our inquiries about one case or another, it’s impractical for a reporter to have to wait 10 days to get basic details about an injury accident that might have occurred midday on Knowles Avenue or burglaries which might have happened over a weekend,” said New Richmond News Publisher Steve Dzubay. “That’s just not the way the Open Records Law was intended to be applied. Citizens have a right to know what’s happening in their community when it involves tax dollars and public employees.”
Media in several other parts of Wisconsin began experiencing similar blackouts following release of a memo by the Wisconsin League of Municipalities warning that cities could be at risk for lawsuits and paying damages if they didn’t limit public access to certain data.
Police in Hudson and Kenosha also began limiting the release of information, pending clarification of the 7th Circuit ruling.
In Superior, police adopted a policy to redact personal information from its reports when it can be construed as coming from DMV records earlier this month.
Superior Police Chief Charles LaGesse said he is working with officers to gain consent of the parties involved to release the information. The chief said he recognizes that it makes no sense for any individual to pick up a copy of accident report in which they can obtain no information about the other driver.
Meanwhile, open records policies at nearby the Somerset and River Falls police departments are relatively unchanged.
Under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, it is the declared public policy that every citizen is entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government, wrote Robert Dreps, the attorney representing the News.
The statute affirms the presumption of complete public access to governmental records, consistent with government business, and provides that the “denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied,” Dreps wrote, quoting the statute, then adding, “This is not an exceptional case.”
Dreps said departments across the state have interpreted the federal ruling differently and applied restrictions in varying degrees. He said New Richmond is the only police department he knows of that has gone to the extent of redacting the person’s name from every report.
Dreps said he understands how communities can be skittish about releasing information that could result in legal trouble, but media outlets have a valid argument about public records.
“It’s just a difference of opinion,” Dreps said.
In the federal case — Senne vs. Village of Palatine — a man who received a $20 parking ticket in the Illinois city filed a class-action lawsuit against the village in federal court, claiming violation of privacy in that his name, address, date of birth, height, weight and driver’s license number were placed on the ticket in plain view on his windshield. A court panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case. But upon appeal to the entire court, a panel whose jurisdiction extends to Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, his right to pursue the claim was upheld and the case was sent back for trial.
Some attorneys soon suggested that municipalities, community colleges and other governmental entities that issue parking tickets should immediately review their practices to ensure that they comply with the court’s decision.
The court first found that placing the parking ticket on Senne’s windshield constituted a “disclosure” under the act because any passer-by could have viewed the ticket, even though there were no facts to suggest that anyone had actually done so during the five hours before the owner removed it from the windshield.
Palatine’s petition for review of that ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is pending.
LaGesse sought an opinion from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office for clarification after the Senne decision; however, the state agency with oversight of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law has decided not to render an opinion pending denial of the petition or a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to documents the chief shared with the Superior Telegram.