GREEN BAY - If you want to know who was involved in something as minor as a traffic accident or as high-profile as a fight involving two off-duty Minneapolis police officers, don't expect to find the answer in the police reports released by the Green Bay Police Department.
The department's official policy is to redact all personal information from any reports made public.
Green Bay police are not alone. The Brown County Sheriff's Department and Appleton police are redacting reports, too. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association found more than 60 departments in the state heavily redacting information like names, addresses and dates of birth. That type of information has typically been available under the Wisconsin Open Records law.
"This is one of the most serious threats to open government that we've ever seen," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
"This is a whole category of records that used to be available and now, no longer is," Lueders said.
Why are so many agencies redacting so much information? It all boils down to a parking ticket and a lawsuit.
Back in 2010, Jason Senne received a parking ticket in Palatine, Illinois. The outside of the ticket listed all of his personal information including his full name, address, driver's license number, date of birth, height and weight.
Senne sued the village under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, a law passed by Congress in 1994. The law was designed to prevent states from selling personal information found in DMV records.
Senne lost but appealed.
In August of 2012, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court and sided with Senne, ruling the village did in fact violate federal law by placing a parking ticket with personal information on Senne's windshield.
As a result of that ruling, police agencies across Wisconsin are now redacting personal information from accident reports released to the public.
"This affects everyone," Lueders said. "If you're involved in a traffic accident you may find that it is harder to get basic information about that accident because of the way authorities are interpreting this law."
Green Bay city attorney Tony Wachewicz says cities are choosing to blackout the information because they're afraid of getting sued.
When asked of the fear of a lawsuit is legitimate, Wachewicz replied, "I do. Yes."
Wachewicz says the new policy has doubled the workload for employees in the police department's records division. While the city has never been sued for releasing DMV records, Wachewicz says it's better to be safe than get sued.
He also says it represents a shift in how the city used to response to Open Records requests.
"That's what has made this such a difficult challenge and is kind of a change historically from the way that things have occurred," Wachewicz said. "But at the same point, the law is what the law is at this point and that's what we have to follow."
"Transparency and openness are the key to democracy," said Michelle Vetterkind, president of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. She says it's troubling to see the media and the general public denied basic information.
"There is definitely a concern that the number of municipalities where the redactions are occurring is rapidly growing," Vetterkind said.
Open government advocates say one reason so many police agencies are jumping on the redaction band wagon is because of an article from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
In the article, the League cautions police to "...evaluate all the ways in which they use information obtained from DMV records in order to avoid violating the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA)."
"We're stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League.
"We're frustrated because we don't know exactly how conservatively to interpret the court's decision the Palatine case. But we're erring on the side of caution," he said.
Not all agencies are following suit. The Oconto Police Department did heavily redact its police reports for a time. But that only lasted for about two weeks. Police Chief Dan Ault decided to go back to the way they used to do it.
"Why are we making this difficult? This isn't rocket science," Ault said.
While the department does redact things like birth dates and driver's license numbers, basic information is being released to the public.
When asked if he's concerned the city could be sued for releasing the information Ault replied, "We're not doing anything wrong. There's no concern. You can always be sued. I don't think there's any liability issue. We're following state statute. We're redacting information. We're not divulging information we've obtained from the computer system. So there's nothing that I'm even remotely concerned about in regards to this."
In fact, un-redacted accident reports are available from the state Department of Transportation. But people have to pay for the reports and it can take two weeks to get them.
But don't expect cities like Green Bay
to change its policy.
We asked the Green Bay city attorney what he would say to people who think the city is redacting too much information.
Wachewicz replied, "I think that it should be taken up and changed legislatively to provide a clear answer."
Most observers agree the matter will most likely be resolved in court.
A case involving the New Richmond News is making its way through the federal court system. The newspaper is challenging the city's practice of heavily redacting information in police reports.
Lueders expects Wisconsin's history of open government to prevail.
"We're very confident that the courts will ultimately rule that the way this law is being applied in Wisconsin is not appropriate," he said.
In an opinion issued five years ago, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the police do not violate federal law when they release personal information in accident reports. Attorneys on both sides have asked Van Hollen to weigh in on the matter again. But a spokesperson says the attorney general will not get involved because of the on-going federal lawsuit.
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