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Law enforcement censoring reports

Fearing a privacy lawsuit, police are redacting information from the public record

August 27, 2013 | 11:28 AM
In the past, information blocked from police reports involved juvenile offenders and witnesses to crimes.

In some cases, victim’s names were also censored from the public record.

Now, in some local departments, police are censoring information that once was easily accessible.

In some cases, even the names of people who have been arrested have been blocked from the public view.

This change wasn’t made because police want to protect the identity of the people they arrest, but instead it is to shield the departments from being sued.

The fear of litigation stems from a court case that occurred in Palatine, Ill., when Jason Senne sued the village for leaving a parking ticket on his vehicle that included his name, address, driver’s license number and other personal information.

Senne claimed including this information on his ticket violated the 1994 federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits states from releasing a driver’s personal information.

The DPPA was passed when a stalker murdered an actress in 1989 after finding her address through Department of Motor Vehicle records.

The Palatine lawsuit occurred three years ago, and a district court tossed the case. The case was reviewed by a 7th Circuit Court panel, and it agreed with the district court.

However, the full 7th Circuit Court heard the case and reversed the decision last year. The village of Palatine has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review it.

This decision has caused police departments throughout Walworth County to revisit how they release information on police reports.

Last November, the League of Municipalities released an article by Claire Silverman, legal counsel, regarding the litigation and potential liability for departments. “Law enforcement agencies should evaluate all the ways in which they use information obtained from DMV records in order to avoid violating the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA),” Silverman wrote.

The DPPA allows law enforcement to disclose information in the course of carrying out its functions.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association argues that responding to open records requests is a law enforcement function. Silverman disagrees.

“But is the information being disclosed for use by the law enforcement agency in carrying out its functions? That’s the difficult question. Based on Senne, I suspect the answer is no. Moreover, the Seventh Circuit’s statements and obvious concern regarding the ‘very real safety and security concerns’ raised by the disclosure of personal information, like someone’s home address, suggests that some or all of the personal information needs to be redacted.”

In response to the Palatine case and Silverman’s article, many police departments have changed how they release information.

This change has meant that numerous Wisconsin papers, including the Lake Geneva Regional News, are left with ambiguous police reports. The Regional News continues to report information as it receives it, but in some cases the offenders names, addresses and ages have been redacted from the reports.

Police departments throughout the county have different policies regarding what information is released, and, in some cases, departments have been inconsistent in what information is being redacted.

Local response

Several of the police chiefs contacted by the Regional News are not in favor of redacting information.

The effort it takes to redact information can be time consuming, and, legally, the police can’t charge people who request open records for the time it takes to redact the information.

The departments can only charge for the time it takes to locate, print and copy the documents.

Lake Geneva Police Chief Michael Rasmussen said police are still including the names of people who are arrested, but are redacting addresses and dates of birth.

The Lake Geneva police reports that appear in the Regional News include the defendant’s name, age and hometown, which is information the department provides directly to the paper.

Rasmussen told a Regional News reporter that Administrative Assistant Donna Wisniewski called the process of redacting information “a nightmare.”

“Before the 7th District’s decision, open records took her 20 minutes a day,” he said. “Now it take hours during the week, she said. Recently (Wisniewski) had a request that took her more than five hours to resolve.”

City Attorney Dan Draper made the decision to start redacting information.

“We’re not trying to be overly crazy about it,” Draper said. “On the other hand, most municipalities are being very cautious about what the court of appeals’ decision really means.”

Central records supervisor for Walworth County, Vicki Runnells, said if people are directly involved in a traffic accident, information isn’t redacted from the report.

“Right now, if someone is not directly involved in the accident, so if you are not a driver or a victim or something like that, and you make a request for the report, then we redact everything except for the name,” Runnells said.

Runnells, Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter, the under sheriff and a sheriff’s captain met and made the decision on what information should be redacted.

“The Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office should weigh in on this as well, they are waiting as well,” Cotter said. “This is a matter of state-wide concern, it’s not just a matter of Walworth County or local municipalities.”

In 2008, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen released an informal opinion that states responding to open records requests doesn’t violate the DPPA.

However, that opinion was written prior to the Palatine lawsuit.

The Wisconsin Newspaper’s Association has filed a lawsuit against the city of New Richmond on behalf of the New Richmond News.

That case is pending. Van Hollen won’t opine on the issue until that litigation is resolved.

Walworth Police Chief Chris Severt called the decision “a little bit overboard.”

“I understand the rationale behind it. It does put a burden on departments when we’re trying to streamline work,” Severt said. “It takes a lot of time to do the proper redact and only giving out the legally allowed information.”

The appeals court that ruled on the Senne case has jurisdiction in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

However, so far, only Wisconsin attorneys have determined that police should redact information from police reports.

There have been no reports from Indiana or Illinois of information being redacted because of the DPPA.

The Regional News attempted to contact the village of Palatine to determine whether it is redacting any information because of the new law.

A message left with the village of Palatine’s freedom of information officer was not returned.

Chris Schultz and Jade Bolack contributed to this article.


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