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Weird law has Orwellian consequences

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September 03, 2013 | 10:53 AM
A bizarre interpretation of a law has meant you’re not getting the news you deserve.

Managing Editor Rob Ireland explained it well in an article we ran last week (see it online at lakegenevanews.net).

That law, extended to its most ridiculous extremes, means police agencies can’t release information they get from records provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As a result, you’re reading a varying array of police reports in the Regional News and other newspapers around the state.

Some police agencies, interpreting the law very broadly, aren’t giving us much of anything. No names. No addresses. No ages. It’s almost useless information. We’re running it anyway thinking maybe it has some vague value.

Other police agencies, interpreting the law narrowly, are giving us almost what they were giving us before. Names and charges, for instance, but some are “redacting” crucial identifiers like age and the address of the person involved.

That means that if your name is John Halverson and there are five other people with the same name, your name will appear in the paper but without an address or age to separate you from the person arrested.

This 1994 federal law, called the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, resulted from an incident involving an actress who was killed by a stalker who obtained information about her from a driver’s record.

Since then a person sued the village of Palatine, Ill., because personal information was placed on a parking ticket affixed to his car for any passerby to see.

The village could be liable for $80 million in fines.

Understandably, police agencies in the area are now gun shy about releasing similar information they’ve obtained from driver’s records.

The problem is that almost all the pertinent information they receive from a traffic stop, for instance, is at least confirmed by driver’s records.

Most police agencies, especially in our area, have computers in their squad cars that get information directly from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

We in the media are upset.

You should be, too.

Besides limiting our ability to give you the news, this type of “secrecy” — intended or not — has even more serious implications.

In some parts of the state, people aren’t even allowed to get information of much value from accident reports when they were involved in the accident. They can’t even get the name of the other person involved because it was obtained by driver’s records.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association, through the state’s top media lawyer, is fighting for us.

In their minds, the law should not be interpreted so broadly that it doesn’t allow disclosure of driver record information to the media.

The Wisconsin Attorney General has said the same thing. The law allows police departments to release the information as part of their function as law enforcement agencies. The AG and the WNA say that giving information to the media is part of their function. We agree.

In a test case of sorts, the Richmond News is suing the city of Richmond over this exact law.

What’s muddled the entire issue is that the Palatine case came after the AG’s opinion, meaning it is the one city attorneys have to worry about.

And the AG’s office won’t reissue its interpretation because of the Richmond case — they won’t issue opinions involving ongoing cases and the Richmond case hasn’t been resolved.

So, here we are. Stuck.

The media, the police agencies, city attorneys and you — we’re all stuck.

City attorneys are being cautious, and the police are stuck with doing what they’re told.

It isn’t making some police agencies happy either.

In the city of Lake Geneva, for instance, a person on the payroll is spending as much as a day redacting information from reports when she used to be able to send appropriate information to the media within a few minutes.

She called it “a nightmare.”

So what can be done?

We hope the police agencies and the lawyers, who set their policies, take an interpretation of the law that is the most favorable for the media and therefore the public.

We hope the resolution of the Palatine and Richmond cases clear the air.

The Palatine case could take awhile. After several contradictory lower court rulings, the city has now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court — and we know how slowly they move.

At least if the Richmond case is resolved, the attorney general can reissue his interpretation that the law doesn’t apply to releasing information to the media.

Again, this has more to do with a newspaper’s desire to print news.

It has to do with people being able to get police records where they’re involved.

And it has to do with secret arrests and a society where the law works in the dark. That’s not hyperbole from a George Orwell novel. That’s exactly what’s happening, intentionally or not.

Part of our function in the media is to shed light on what authorities are doing, but the legal system has closed the door to a dark room.

We should all pray that it’s opened sooner than later.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Lake Geneva Regional News.


Tags: Staff Editorial

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