A.G.: Cops can release DMV information

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
April 30, 2008
— Police responding to public record requests can legally release personal information theyíve obtained from motor vehicle records, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in an opinion released Tuesday.

The opinion is the first attempt to reconcile Wisconsinís open records law with the federal Driverís Privacy Protection Act, which limits the release of personal information in state motor vehicle records. The federal law was designed to prevent criminals from obtaining information such as addresses and to prevent the sale of personal information.

ďWhat the attorney general seems to have said is that the act does not trump the expectation of openness at the core of the public records law,Ē said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The council along with Capital Newspapers Portage Division, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times, The Janesville Gazette and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last July asked Van Hollen for clarification on how the laws overlap. The media organizations complained a number of state municipalities were using the federal law to justify redacting information in police records.

A federal jury in February 2007 awarded a Beaver Dam couple $25,000 after finding that an Evansville police officer violated federal law when he disclosed the womanís address to an ex-husband who had been harassing her. The officer had found the address in a state database.

Evansville Police Chief Scott McElroy took the case and the ruling as a sign that his department should stop releasing addresses that his department finds on the driverís license database. Departments in several other Wisconsin cities followed.

McElroy said this morning he was reviewing the opinion and was not ready to comment.

The Reedsburg Times-Press, part of the Capital Newspapers Portage Division, specifically cited its requests for a car accident report, a complaint about a dog and a traffic ticket. The agency redacted addresses from the documents, citing a federal case that said the federal Driverís Privacy Protection Act generally prohibits state officials from disclosing personal information from a motor vehicle record.

Van Hollen wrote that the federal law doesnít prevent motor vehicle departments from sharing information with other government agencies, including police. The act doesnít restrict how those secondary agencies can use the information, he said.

Wisconsinís open records law states the public is entitled to the greatest possible information about government. Van Hollen said restricting police from carrying out their public records functions because of the federal Driverís Privacy Protection Act, including re-disclosing personal motor vehicle information, would subvert public oversight of police investigations and hurt public confidence in law enforcement.

Van Hollen went on to say the federal Driverís Privacy Protection Act doesnít prevent police from including a driverís name, address and telephone number in accident reports or tickets. The act does protect driverís photographs, Social Security numbers, medical and disability information, however, the attorney general said.

The right to obtain accident reports is included in a statute that requires drivers to report accidents, police to prepare written reports on the crashes and the Department of Transportation to compile crash statistics, and federal Driverís Privacy Protection Act requires personal information to be disclosed in a situation that might affect a car or driver safety and theft, Van Hollen added.

George Althoff, publisher of the Times-Press and the other newspapers in the Capital Newspapers Portage Division, hailed Van Hollenís opinion, saying addresses and other personal information can be crucial to verify identities when reporting stories.

ďSort of a no-brainer, isnít it?Ē Althoff said. ďThatís an outstanding opinion by the attorney general.Ē

Reedsburg Police Chief Tim Becker didnít immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

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