Police still struggle with open records laws

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, March 29, 2014

The issue of whether police should let the public know who has been arrested or who was involved in an accident remains a prickly subject.

Local law enforcement agencies remain split on the issue despite a St. Croix County Court ruling March 20 that said names of people included in their reports should be disclosed.

Some, like Milton City Administrator Jerry Schuetz, feel torn between a federal law that calls for more privacy and Wisconsin's open records law, which requires disclosure.

“We need the clarity,” Schuetz said.

The new ruling, in a lawsuit brought by the New Richmond News against the city of New Richmond, does not provide that clarity, some say.

“We're not going to be making any decisions based on one court case,” said Edgerton Police Chief Tom Klubertanz.

Edgerton, like Milton, the Rock County Sheriff's Office, among others, recently began withholding names on reports.

Klubertanz said the case he watches is the one that started in 2012 in Palatine, Ill., 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.

The Janesville Police Department is one that has continued to release its accident and arrest reports with names, ages and addresses of those involved.

Advocates for disclosure of names on police reports argue that without names, the public can't know whether police are enforcing laws fairly.

Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said he is reviewing the St. Croix County ruling with the county's corporation counsel.

Spoden said he would rather release names, which would be easier to do, but he has to rely on legal advice.

The response to the latest ruling by other counties, municipalities and the state attorney general could have an impact, Spoden said.

Spoden said he heard from Beloit and Walworth County, who both will continue to redact their reports.

Schuetz said Milton is considering resuming its identification of people in reports.

Schuetz said he might bring a proposal to the city council when it meets Wednesday or on April 15.

Schuetz said guidance from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities or from the state attorney general would bolster the argument for disclosure.

Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, would say only: “We are pleased with the circuit court's decision and will continue to monitor this case should this decision be appealed.”

Beloit City Manager Larry Arft, who is president of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said the league is reviewing the situation, but he said a circuit court ruling does not set a precedent.

Arft said he doesn't know whether the league will issue new guidance to its members.

“No matter what we do, we're gong to make some people unhappy,” Arft said.

Milton could be sued for releasing information, or it could be sued for not releasing information, leaving taxpayers on the hook, Schuetz said. So, if that's the case, he believes the city should follow the open records law.

The judge in the New Richmond case does not believe the two laws conflict. He noted in his opinion that the federal law itself states that identifying information should be disclosed when a state law requires disclosure of information related to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety.

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