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Wisconsin media, cities compromise on records

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • August 17, 2014 - 10:00 AM

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin open records advocates and municipal leaders have brokered a truce in a fight over police record redactions, creating a request form that allows the public to get clean copies if they reveal who they are and why they want the documents.

The deal is a departure from Wisconsin's open records law, which does not require either piece of information.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the two groups that crafted the agreement, say it's meant as a non-binding, stop-gap measure to ensure people can get full reports while a state appeals court sorts out whether federal law mandates the redaction of personal information.

"We don't like it," Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said of the agreement. "They're making you do something our state records law says you can't do. (But) it makes a bad situation slightly better."

Police departments often use motor vehicle records to obtain people's names, addresses, birthdates and other personal information. More Wisconsin departments have been redacting that information from incident and accident reports before releasing them to avoid violating the 1994 federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which requires states to obtain consent before they release a driver's personal information.

The redactions began in 2012, when the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the village of Palatine, Illinois, violated the act when it left a parking ticket on resident Jason Senne's car that listed various pieces of his personal information.

The WNA estimates nearly 80 police departments have adopted policies calling for blacking out all personal information in the wake of the Senne decision. The agencies' stances have upset open government advocates and made it harder for reporters to add details in news stories and for crime and accident victims to submit insurance claims.

Requestors can still obtain full accident reports from the state Department of Transportation — that agency doesn't interpret the DPPA as strictly as the municipalities — but it typically takes two weeks for police to get the documents to the DOT.

A St. Croix County judge ruled in March that New Richmond didn't have to redact police reports it gave to the New Richmond News. He noted the state's open records law mandates disclosure of information regarding government affairs and the privacy act allows disclosure if the information is related to motor vehicle use or public safety.

The city plans to appeal. Unlike the St. Croix County decision, a ruling from a state appeals court would be binding across Wisconsin.

Worried that others might sue for full records in multiple cities before the appeals court rules, the municipal league met with the WNA in June to discuss a compromise.

They announced a deal last month that calls for the league to recommend police turn over full reports if requestors fill out a form identifying themselves and select at least one of 14 reasons for the request. The reasons include use in motor vehicle matters, insurance claims, court cases or any other use allowed under state law that's related to public safety.

New Richmond News publisher Steve Dzubay said he doesn't believe requestors should have to explain why they want documents but the compromise at least offers a way to get clean copies.

Bob Dreps, an attorney representing the New Richmond Times and the WNA in the dispute, stressed the deal doesn't establish any legal precedence. It's simply a temporary solution until a court issues a binding decision, he said.

Curt Witynski, the municipal league's executive director, said record requestors may bristle at the compromise but local government officials are worried the deal doesn't mean anything and they could still be liable for violating the DPPA if they don't redact.

Remzy Bitar, the city of New Richmond's attorney, said the appeals court must clear things up.

"Open records are important attributes of any democracy but so is protecting privacy," he said. "How do you balance those two? Both sides want to have some clarity here."

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