Wisconsin police run with redactions

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By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

A federal appeals court decision has police departments in Wisconsin redacting the names of people involved in accidents and ticketed for traffic violations.

Since the 7th Circuit’s jurisdiction includes Indiana, I fear local government officials concerned about liability costs will mimic their counterparts in Wisconsin, even though the case sparking the reaction is still in litigation.

The full 7th Circuit Court reversed a ruling to dismiss Senne v. Village of Palatine, Illinois.

Jason Senne had a parking ticket placed overnight in his car’s windshield in Palatine, Ill. Senne sued the town under the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act because the ticket listed personal information obtained from state motor vehicle records.

Palatine argued that printing the identifying information on the parking ticket fit within one of the Drivers Privacy Protection Act’s exceptions allowing disclosure “for use by a … government agency, including a … law enforcement agency, in carrying out its functions” as permitted “for use in connection with matters of motor vehicle or driver safety” and “for use in connection with any civil … or administrative … proceeding, including the service of process.”

A parking ticket is an accepted means of giving the car owner notice of the violation, but the judicial panel’s majority felt the ticket went too far in revealing protected personal information.

Judge Kenneth Ripple’s dissent points out that the consequences of the majority view put Palatine at risk of $80 million in liquidated damages on behalf of everyone who has received a parking ticket within the period of the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit. The beneficiaries would be people who parked illegally.

Until the law is amended or the Supreme Court reverses the decision, “only a sucker would park legally in the Village of Palatine,” Ripple wrote.

The lawbreaker could pocket $2,500 in a legal action, according to the judge.

The liability has prompted police departments in Wiscon­sin to shut down access to names listed in police records that are subject to that state’s records access laws.

“With a growing number of departments redacting crash reports – and, in some cases, all incident reports – drivers injured in crashes may have no right to the identity of the other motorist and communities can be kept in the dark about who police are arresting,” reporter Eric Litke wrote recently in the Sheboygan (Wis.) Press.

Ripple pointed out the fallacy of the majority opinion’s concern that stalkers would follow women they are targeting with the hope that the potential victim would illegally park so that the woman’s address would be revealed. Instead, the criminal would just follow the woman until she drove home, the judge said.

Litke reported last month that at least 30 municipalities now redact personal information from reports, citing the Senne ruling or the 1994 Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, told Litke the liability in possibly violating the Drivers Privacy Protection Act is driving the redactions.

“The danger and the damage and the cost of violating the federal law is substantially more than violating the public records law,” Thompson said. “If you release a record that you’re not supposed to release, you’ve now violated somebody’s civil rights, and you’re now in federal court where you have no cap for damages.”

So far I haven’t heard of any Indiana agencies following this course.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.

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