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OUR VIEW: A matter of public record

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Absent from this week's public records are some details about an unknown number of motor vehicle accidents that happened around Hudson and New Richmond recently.

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Chiefs at Hudson and New Richmond police departments and to a lesser extent, Sheriff John Shilts, are following the advice of legal counsel to restrict the release of accident reports that have long been considered a matter of public record.

These three departments and another in Door County are among a handful of entities around Wisconsin who are apparently heeding advice by the Wisconsin League of Municipalities to protect themselves from being sued by citizens over alleged violation of privacy.

The tempest in this teapot stems from a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (federal panel with jurisdiction over Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) decision in favor of a Palatine, Ill., man who said a $20 parking ticket stuck under his windshield wiper in August 2010, may have revealed his personal information to passers-by.

Ticket recipient Jason Senne claimed the ticket placement constituted a violation of the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) which prohibits release of information found in motor vehicle records. While a three-judge panel first ruled for the city of Palatine, upon appeal, Senne convinced the whole court to change its mind.

The DPPA was adopted after the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a man who had copied down her license plate number and then looked up her home address in DMV records. The statute prohibited public officials from disclosing "or otherwise making available" personal information from DMV files.

"This sort of publication is certainly forbidden by the statute...There are very real safety and security concerns at stake here. For example, an individual seeking to stalk or rape can go down a street where overnight parking is banned and collect the home address and personal information of women whose vehicles have been tagged. He can ascertain the name, exact address including the apartment number and even other information such as sex, age, height and weight pertinent to his nefarious intent," Circuit Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the court.

So instead of simply ordering that tickets be sealed in envelopes or perhaps limit the detail being transmitted to citations, the vague ruling has been left to interpretation and apparently one League attorney thinks accident reports locked in the PD's and sheriff's offices are little time bombs, waiting to ooze private information via local newspapers like ours.

Reporters for the Star-Observer and its sister newspapers routinely review accident reports weekly and primarily report the names, ages and addresses of individuals involved in those crashes that have caused injury, yielded citations or are otherwise deemed newsworthy.

We don't have to ask public officials for permission. These documents -- like council agendas, public employee payrolls, building permits, marriage and divorce records and court rulings -- are open records. Although the reports include information like driver's licenses and phone numbers, dates of birth and weight, we don't report those or we'd have to answer to you, the reader.

In fairness, since the 7th Circuit ruling, local law enforcement officials have agreed to release accident reports when given adequate time to photocopy and redact those elements that legal counsel has deemed sensitive.

While we appreciate every citizen's right to reasonable privacy, the narrow interpretation of a federal court ruling shouldn't tip the balance enough to trump decades of open records law.

Citizens also have a right to know who violates laws and utilizes public services.

If the mayor, the police chief, a county judge or other elected or appointed public official gets in an accident, we ought to have a right to review the accident report and write about it. Period.

This newspaper and its media peers will be working to get this ruling clarified so the sun can continue to shine in on the public's business.

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