The Wetterling family's legal battle to keep certain investigation records out of the public eye has resonated at the State Capitol, where a St. Paul lawmaker has proposed a new limit on public access to police files.
Open-government advocates worry that it would restrict access to records that have been open to the public for decades.
Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, people involved in criminal investigations could request that information about them be kept private if it is irrelevant to the preparation or prosecution of the case. Law enforcement would determine the relevance and weigh that request against the value of public disclosure, or decide whether releasing the information was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
"There's a lot of private information in [case files] that has no relevance to an investigation," Patty Wetterling said. "We need to be respectful of victims and also have an opportunity to have transparency. It's a needed fix."
Cohen said his bill would strike the right balance between privacy and public access and would be "used sparingly" for lengthy investigations.
Mark Anfinson, who is representing media organizations and others pushing for public access to the Wetterling records, said he has worked with Cohen in the past and said "the goal here is entirely legitimate."
But he fears it would end up blocking access to far more information than Cohen initially intended. The bill's language is too ambiguous about how and when the privacy exemption would apply, Anfinson said. He said law enforcement would err on the side of withholding records out of fear of being sued for disclosing information that should be private.
"With the broad definitions and law-enforcement discretion, you could be missing a lot of information that used to be public," said Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
The Wetterling family wants to prevent the release of 168 of the approximately 56,000 pages of documents related to the 27-year investigation into the kidnapping and murder of their son, Jacob. Various news media and watchdog groups argue that the entire investigative case file should be public.
Wetterling said Friday that during the investigation, people turned in friends and family members who had victimized them, but their stories did not end up being relevant to the case.
"We have to protect those who come forward," she said.
She has previously said the 168 pages they would like to suppress do not mention Danny Heinrich, the man who confessed to killing her son, and do not show any wrongdoing or negligence by law enforcement.
Doug Kelley, the Wetterlings' attorney, said Minnesota's data privacy laws are "woefully behind the times." He said other states have "a safety valve for privacy," similar to what Cohen proposed.
Cohen's measure states that inactive investigative data would be private if the person who is the subject of the data requests it, and if certain conditions are met.
"It's meant to deal with unusual investigative matters in a very, very narrow way," Cohen said. "If I felt this approach would run into the appropriate public need to know, I wouldn't do it."
Anfinson said he plans to talk with Cohen in the next week and hopes to work on the legislation, though he said he's not sure it can be improved enough to address his concerns.
Cohen is unsure how much headway the bill will make in this year's short, busy legislative session. A committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for the measure. If it doesn't progress this year, Kelley said he will urge lawmakers to push for it next year.
In the court case about the Wetterling file, it could be another month or more before Douglas County District Judge Ann Carrott rules, Anfinson said, then there would likely be an appeal. He said the legal fight could still be continuing during next year's legislative session.