Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issued a strong and important opinion this month favoring the public’s right to know about traffic accidents and crime in local communities.
Van Hollen agreed with state newspapers that basic information identifying people in accident and incident reports is open to public inspection under Wisconsin law.
It doesn’t matter that a federal law prevents the state Division of Motor Vehicles from releasing some of the same information to the public. State law holds local police agencies to a higher and more open standard — even when those local police agencies get their information from the DMV.
Police agencies across Wisconsin should heed Van Hollen’s forceful and smart opinion. Van Hollen has made it clear that local police should allow ordinary citizens, newspapers and other media easy access to basic information identifying people on routine reports.
Too many police departments had been routinely blacking out addresses, dates of births, and other identifying information from even the most mundane reports before releasing them to the public.
The secrecy reached such a ridiculous point that even a complaint about a dog relieving itself on city property in Reedsburg prompted police to black out addresses, dates of births and the complainant’s middle initial.
Reedsburg police tried to justify this stunning secrecy by citing a federal law called the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. The act was intended to limit state motor vehicle departments from routinely giving out personal information about drivers. Congress wanted to prevent the sale of personal information. It also wanted to stop criminals, such as abusive and estranged boyfriends, from learning the addresses of those they might target.
But the federal law was never intended to apply to local police departments that simply use the DMV to get basic information about specific drivers involved in local accidents.
“We conclude that after a law enforcement officer has written a report or citation, including certain personal information obtained from the DMV, the officer’s agency may provide a copy of the report or citation in response to a public records request,” Van Hollen wrote.
Obviously, police departments should not release Social Security numbers. Nor do they have to give out information about drivers ‘ disabilities that aren’t pertinent.
But names and addresses on basic reports and tickets must be released because they help people understand what’s going on in their communities. Openness also boosts trust in local police.
Van Hollen took long enough to issue his opinion, which was requested back in July. But it turns out his wise analysis and advice were worth the wait.
Milfred is opinion page editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.