Press&Policy

Northwoods police differ on disclosure

Posted in Public records law by foiguy on September 21, 2013

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I write today about how the DPPA debacle is affecting the Northwoods. In short: Two out of six law enforcement agencies in Oneida and Vilas counties — Rhinelander and Eagle River police departments — have adopted more restrictive disclosure policies since the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals en banc decision in Village of Palatine v. Senne.

Chiefs of both police departments didn’t mince words about what they think of the new policies:

Rhinelander Police Chief Michael Steffes said his department changed its public records policy on the recommendation of the city’s insurance company. He said he is just complying with that advice, though he doesn’t agree with it.

“Personally the frustration is that I want to be as transparent as possible with the public,” Steffes said. “Once we have an accident, I want to be able to share that with everyone. If the DPPA is going to prohibit people to see what we’re doing in the city, that bothers me that it seems to limit our full ability to be transparent to the public.”

Rhinelander’s police department has created a partial workaround: Officers are giving drivers involved in accidents a consent form that allows the department to release personal information to other drivers in the accident.

No such workaround exists in Eagle River, where the police department there has also restricted release of personal information in police reports. Police Chief Mark VanderBloomen said he too is upset with the change.

“This entire mess with the DPPA and the Wisconsin open records law has been extremely frustrating,” VanderBloomen said. “In a nutshell, yes, we have changed the way we release open records regarding information garnered through DOT records on advice from legal counsel.”

Four agencies, however, including both sheriffs, have not altered their policies. That kind of mishmash is common around Wisconsin, according to Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

“It really is very schizophrenic,” Bennett said. “It’s just different from one city to the next.”

In an interview, Bennett told me she has met with the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, associations for units of local government and the insurance industry to discuss the redaction problem. There was a consensus, she said, that something needed to be done.

“There is a general agreement that even the organization that represents local governments would like this clarified,” Bennett said.

The full article, “Northwoods police differ on disclosure,” appeared in the Northwoods River News on Sept. 21, 2013, and in The Lakeland Times on Sept. 27, 2013.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. WisDHS voluntarily dismissed

Posted in Public records law by foiguy on July 15, 2013

That was quick. One month after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sued the Wisconsin Department of Health Services under the public records law, online court records indicate the case has been voluntarily dismissed. I suspect a settlement, though I can’t immediately confirm that.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sues state agency over sex-offender housing documents

Posted in Public records law by foiguy on June 19, 2013

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is suing the state Department of Health Services over access to information about housing for sex offenders.

The lawsuit, filed June 11 in Dane County Circuit Court, challenges the department’s basis for redacting from lease agreements the addresses of rental properties where sex offenders on supervised release are living, as well as the names and addresses of the landlords.

The court action comes amid an audit of the state’s supervised release program for sex offenders. That audit was spurred, in part, by news reports of problems with the cost and processes of the release program. (See here, here and here.)

According to the complaint:

On March 7, Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley requested from DHS “copies of all current contracts to house people on supervised release in the Chapter 980 program.”

Chapter 980 is a state law governing commitment and supervised release of sexually violent persons.

On May 9, DHS communications director Stephanie Smiley responded by email to Marley’s request. Smiley released some records, but claimed – without reference to any law, court case or the public record law’s balancing test – that “personal information” could not be disclosed.

“Personal information has been redacted as necessary,” Smiley wrote.

Smiley did not explain what “personal information” meant or why redacting such information was “necessary,” according to the complaint.

Under Wisconsin’s public records law, a record custodian must articulate a specific and sufficient public-policy basis for withholding a record.

That didn’t happen, the Journal Sentinel says.

“The representation that ‘[p]ersonal information has been redacted as necessary’ is a legal conclusion, not a public policy reason claimed to outweigh the presumption that the information DHS redacted must be disclosed, upon request, under the Open Records Law,” the complaint reads.

The newspaper also says withholding the redacted information prevents the public “from evaluating whether or not DHS is paying fair-market rent under the lease contracts at issue” and “from evaluating whether or not bias or favoritism is involved in awarding the lease contracts at issue.”

The complaint includes a redacted residential lease from Green Bay. The landlord name and address, street address of the leased premises and name of the tenant appear to be redacted.

The Journal Sentinel is asking a court to order DHS to release unredacted leases and to pay for attorney’s fees, court costs and damages.

Robert Dreps of Godfrey & Kahn’s Madison office is representing the newspaper.

Read the complaint

View this document on Scribd

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New Richmond News wants public-records case back in state court

Posted in Public records law by foiguy on May 28, 2013

The New Richmond News wants its public-records lawsuit against the City of New Richmond returned to state court.

Attorneys for the newspaper filed a motion on May 17 to remand the case from federal court to St. Croix County Circuit Court, where the newspaper initiated the suit in March.

The city moved the proceedings to federal court in April.

At the heart of the case is a dispute about the interpretation and application of the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, or DPPA, a federal law regulating disclosure of information of motor vehicle records maintained by states.

In essence, the city contends that it is required under DPPA to redact personal information from public records, such as names of people identified in police reports, under certain conditions. The city says it is just following a 2012 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the New Richmond News asserts the city is misinterpreting DPPA and the 7th Circuit’s ruling. The newspaper cites a 2008 informal opinion from the Wisconsin attorney general, which found that DPPA “does not require redaction of the personal information from law enforcement records provided in response to [a] public records request.”

Newspapers across the state have reported similar problems.

As to the dispute over venue, a federal judge is likely to decide whether the case belongs in state or federal court. The city’s response brief is due by June 7, and the newspaper’s reply brief is due by June 17.

You can read the newspaper’s motion to remand and supporting brief below. It’s fairly technical, but there’s an interesting nugget. The brief cites a 7th Circuit ruling on a public-records lawsuit in Illinois. In that case, the Chicago Tribune sued the University of Illinois over the university’s interpretation of a different federal law, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. The newspaper filed the suit in federal court, but the 7th Circuit held that the case should have been adjudicated in Illinois state court.

Newspaper’s motion to remand and supporting brief

View this document on Scribd

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