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Editorial: Accident reports need to be open, not redacted

12:54 PM, Jun. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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If someone crashes into your vehicle and you request a copy of the accident report, you're likely to get a document with the name, address, date of birth and other personal and vehicle information blacked out.

You'd have no idea who hit you if the crash happened in the city of Green Bay or Brown County. The police and sheriff's departments in those municipalities are now redacting personal information based on advice from their attorneys.

They are among a growing number of municipalities that are redacting personal information on crash reports, according to a Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team report.

The practice is an affront to the state's Open Records Law, which as state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has written "must be generally construed to favor disclosure." In other words, the presumption is that records are public.

The transparent operation of government is a cornerstone of a democracy, and this includes its law enforcement agencies. Redacting basic information on government forms, such as accident reports, does not allow for public scrutiny, and it can raise suspicion about the activities of law enforcement.

Yet municipalities are citing a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in August and the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act.

In the court case, an Illinois man sued the village of Palatine, Ill., for violating the DPPA when its police issued him a parking ticket that listed personal information and was left on his windshield.

The DPPA requires states to obtain consent before they release information obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles. It was passed in 1994 after an actress was murdered by a stalker who obtained her address through DMV records.

Based on those events, municipalities are directing their law enforcement agencies to redact such basic information as the name, address, vehicle information from accident reports requested under the state's Open Records Law. This includes Brown County and Green Bay. Both agencies on their websites warn that such information will be redacted and advise that a request can take up to 10 days to fulfill.

Or, you can obtain full reports from the state Department of Transportation. But again, it involves a delay and a cost.

In other words, this restrictive reading of the court case causes an undue burden for a victim of a car crash to find out who hit them.

Residents, as well as news media, rely on open records to keep track of law enforcement agencies and their investigations. What's next? Will arrest reports be redacted? Some agencies are already extending the narrow interpretation of the DPPA to all incident reports, the GWM investigation revealed.

In 2008, the state attorney general issued an informal opinion that said the DPPA did not require the redaction of personal information in accident reports.

Van Hollen wrote: "Responding to public records requests is a required function of law enforcement agencies. Personal information or highly restricted personal information obtained from the state DMV and contained in law enforcement records may be provided in response to a public records request unless the public records balancing test or statutory prohibitions other than the DPPA preclude disclosure."

Despite that conclusion, Van Hollen is waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the case. Meanwhile, municipalities, law enforcement agencies and Wisconsin residences are left interpreting what should be public and what should be private.

What Van Hollen needs to do is reaffirm his opinion on the DPPA and advise municipalities to put away the black markers and stop redacting information that should be public.

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