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Accident Reports Are Not Shielded Under Wisconsin Law

The Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday of this week that a federal law protecting driver’s license data, does not permit Wisconsin law enforcement to withhold driver information from routine accident reports.

Whether the federal law may require such redaction of information in other kinds of police reports, is dependent on what function law enforcement are serving by releasing those records, and whether the information was obtained directly from the department of motor vehicle records or simply verified with that information.

The cases arises out of the New Richmond News who filed a lawsuit against the City of New Richmond, here in Wisconsin. Prior to that, there was a failed class action lawsuit brought in 2010 in a lawsuit in Illinois, filed under the Federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

In 2013, the newspaper filed a lawsuit against New Richmond and a trial judge decided that the DPPA and the Illinois federal case were not intended to overrule the state’s public access records law. The city of New Richmond appealed that court decision. The Court of Appeals on Tuesday, reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling that complying with the public records law was a law enforcement function that met an exception under the DPPA. The Court of Appeals left open the possibility that a different reason might meet the exception, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further decision on that particular issue.

The Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1994, following a stalker who obtained a Hollywood actress’ home address, through motor vehicle records. The stalker killed the actress. The federal DPPA law, restricts use of personal information obtained from motor vehicle departments, but does carve out several exceptions as to use. None of the exceptions has to do with news reporting.

In another case, a person in Illinois sued the village of Palantine, under the federal DPPA, alleging that his personal information appeared on a routine parking ticket that the police had left on the windshield of his vehicle in 2010. The litigant was trying to seek certifying the case as a class action lawsuit, involving other drivers in Palantine, Illinois to had received parking tickets. Had that happened, the village was exposed to approximately $80 million dollars in penalties. Under the law, there would have been a statutory $2,500 penalty to every person who had received a ticket following the passage of the DPPA. The case was dismissed by court order, reinstated, and thrown out again by the federal courts. However, it caused quite a panic among lawyers for the Wisconsin’s League of Wisconsin Municipalities, along with its’ self-insurance companies. The lawyers recommended to err on the side of redacting the information. If a pure parking ticket could lead to a violation of the federal DPPA law, what would a police accident report lead to?

Law enforcement agencies throughout Wisconsin began to redact information regarding names, addresses and ages of individuals involved in even the most routine car accident cases, along with other law enforcement records, if the information was obtained from or confirmed by a driver’s license and/or motor vehicle records. Under yesterdays’ court ruling, the decision states that the federal DPPA law doesn’t hide details on driver information.

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