Howls of outrage and the smack of the House speaker’s gavel brought a dramatic end to the Legislative session last weekend.
As usual, though, most of what really happened in the 2015 Minnesota Legislature could be found in the underlined legalese of the 80 bills presented to the governor for his approval or veto. Many of those bills affect how Minnesotans can find out what their government is doing for them, and to them.
All in all, the session was a win for open government and free expression, in part because of secrecy measures that never made it into law, transparency advocates said.
Here are some of the highlights:
Tighter control of license plate cameras
After wrangling over the issue for three years, lawmakers imposed limits and accountability on the use by police departments of cameras that capture and store the locations of vehicles. The potential invasions of privacy by LPR (license plate recognition) technology became clear in 2012, when the Star Tribune used Minneapolis LPR data to reveal how a police camera recorded the locations of the mayor’s car and a reporter’s car at various times that year.
The state responded by sealing all of that data off from the public, but still allowing police departments to keep millions of license plate scans from cars involved in no crime. The bill, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday, requires police to delete all data from its license plate cameras within 60 days, unless it’s part of an investigation.
That’s a privacy victory, but there are transparency measures, too. Police will have to publicly disclose what surveillance technology they possess, how often they use it and whether the use of LPR devices factored into someone’s arrest.
No new restrictions on body camera video
Political leaders from the White House to Minneapolis City Hall have endorsed police body cameras as a way to restore waning public confidence in law enforcement. Still, a proposal to make all of the video from those cameras off-limits to the public made it through the Minnesota Senate. Backers of the bill, including some law enforcement lobbyists, warned that people’s worst moments could end up on YouTube, even though state law already allows the withholding of photos and videos that are “clearly offensive to common sensibilities.”
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, played a leading role in quashing that proposal during House-Senate negotiations, although it’s likely to come back next year.
“If the police are looking for transparency, if that’s one of the main objectives, then making it all private information may not be the best way of doing that,” said Scott, who also championed the LPR law.
Protecting the right to speak out
People should not have to worry about getting sued if they report a suspected crime, speak before a zoning board, contact a politician about a change in law, demonstrate peacefully or file a complaint with the government about a safety concern, sexual harassment, civil rights violation or job discrimination.
Now those activities have been spelled out in the existing state law that’s supposed to protect people from these nuisance lawsuits, called SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation).
The law was championed by Keith Mueller, who reported a man stealing a campaign sign in the Washington County city of Grant in 2010 and then was hit with state and federal lawsuits. Those lawsuits were dismissed, but Mueller devoted the following years to preventing it from happening to someone else. “I made a vow I was going to do whatever I could to get that passed … to draw the line in the sand,” Mueller said.
Other notable developments
Lawmakers rejected an effort to restrict the public information available on birth certificates. That was proposed after an advocacy group used the records to contact new parents about newborn screening.
They also turned down an insurance industry-backed proposal that would have delayed police from releasing accident and crime incident reports for 30 days.
And finally, the Legislature for the first time funded (to the tune of $70,000) their commission that discusses questions of open records and privacy. The commission may lack the heat of shouting and slamming gavels, but it’s likely to yield much more light.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.