Newspapers, municipalities strike deal that may end police report redactions

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Jake Magee
Thursday, July 31, 2014

EVANSVILLE—The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities struck a deal this week recommending that police release reports without blacking out personal information.

Law enforcement agencies across the state began redacting information from crash and arrest records after a 2012 Illinois federal court ruling in which a man alleged the village of Palatine violated the 1989 Driver's Privacy Protection Act by leaving a parking ticket with his name, date of birth and other personal information in public view on his windshield.

The Palatine case turned into a class-action lawsuit against the city, and it sent  shockwaves through insurance companies to lawyers representing municipalities and counties in Wisconsin. Lawyers warned their clients they could be sued if they revealed identities of persons if that information was obtained through driver's records.

St. Croix County Judge Howard Cameron ruled in March the Illinois decision doesn't overrule Wisconsin open records laws, but that didn't stop police officials across the state from continuing to black out names and other information on reports.

The Evansville Police Department has been excluding personal information since a citizen sued after an officer gave out a home address seven years ago. The department lost more than $1 million settling out of court, Chief Scott McElroy said.

“It's a nightmare for us,” he said. “One side wants the reports, the other side doesn't want us to release it. No matter what we release, somebody's already threatening to sue us.”

The issue rises from what some attorney see as a conflict between the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act and Wisconsin open records statutes.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association hosted a summit June 3 to address the problem. Talks between the association, local government representatives and insurers resulted in a form that media representatives, business people and residents can use to request reports from police.

By filling out the form, the requester would be saying use of the information would be used in the interest of public safety, which is an exemption under the Driver Privacy Protection Act.

“The media has long reasoned that reporting on local affairs is … a matter of public safety,” Beth Bennett, Wisconsin Newspaper Association executive director, wrote in a press release.

Several area police agencies, including the Milton Police Department and the Rock County Sheriff's Office, for a time blacked out personal information on reports but recently stopped.

The Edgerton Police Department continues to black out information.

The Janesville Police Department never blacked out personal information because of DPPA.

The Evansville Police Department is on board. McElroy said the department would give out unredacted information to anyone who fills out a form relieving the department of liability.

The police department uses its own form for lawyers and insurance agents requesting unredacted reports under a different DPPA exemption. The newspaper association's proposed form would go a step further, granting that right to records using the records in regards to public safety.

“Not everybody agrees with me,” McElroy said. “They think we're being overcautious, but we were sued, and that's the bottom line.”

The agreement is a stopgap measure until an appellate court decision is reached on the Palatine case. Such a decision could take a year, according to the WNA statement.

The league plans to run an article Sept. 1 for its members summarizing the deal and recommending how to use the form. The league will inform attorneys about the agreement early August.

Last updated: 3:03 pm Thursday, July 31, 2014

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