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Appeals court: Police can release full accident reports (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin police departments can release full accident and incident reports with drivers’ information without running afoul of federal privacy laws, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The decision stems from a long-running lawsuit the New Richmond News filed against the city of New Richmond in 2013. The newspaper alleged that police had censored too much information from accident and incident reports it had requested under Wisconsin’s open records law. The city argued that the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act requires redacting all information from driver records.

“We think (the decision) is going to mean the DPPA will no longer be a significant impediment to public access,” said the newspaper’s attorney, Bob Dreps. “This opinion restores public access to virtually all law enforcement records.”

The city’s attorney, Remzy Bitar, didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail left at his office Tuesday.

Police 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 DPPA, which requires states to obtain consent before they release a driver’s personal information.

The redaction trend began in 2012, when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that 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 agencies’ stances have upset open government advocates and made it harder both for reporters to add details in news stories and for crime and accident victims to submit insurance claims.

The New Richmond case has been closely watched by municipalities and their insurance carriers. A St. Croix County judge found in the newspaper’s favor in 2014, and the city appealed. The state Supreme Court took the case directly, but Justice Patrick Crooks’ death in September days after the justices heard oral arguments left the court deadlocked 3-3. The high court sent the matter back to the District 3 Court of Appeals.

That court found that the case hinges on two exceptions in the DPPA. One allows disclosure of driver record data if permitted under state law; the other allows disclosure by any government agency carrying out its functions.

Since Wisconsin law specifically mandates police provide public access to accident reports, departments can release full copies of such reports with driver information under the state law exception, the court concluded. Disclosing full incident reports with information taken directly from motor vehicle records, however, isn’t part of a government function and would defeat the purpose of the DPPA, the court said.

But police can release full incident reports if information is verified by driver records rather than originally sourced from them, the court found.

For example, Dreps said, if a witness gives police the name and address of a suspected bank robber and police confirm that information through driver records, the information can be released in the report.

If a witness gives police only a getaway car’s license plate number and police learn the suspect’s name by running the plate, the name couldn’t be included. But Dreps said police rarely obtain firsthand information from driver records.

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