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New Richmond News challenges police policy

The New Richmond News has filed a lawsuit against the City of New Richmond, alleging the city's police department is unreasonably restricting access to timely information on accident and incident reports, on the basis of a alleged misinterpretation of a recent U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit ruling.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in St. Croix County Circuit Court, names the city as a defendant because it is responsible for the actions of the police department. It asks that the department reverse its policies and pay attorney's fees and damages in the case.

The newspaper and the department disagree on the interpretation and application of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act to requests for access to law enforcement records under the Open Records Law. The News contents that DPPA doesn't require removal of personal information before public disclosure under the Open Records Law. The newspaper cites a 2008 Wisconsin Attorney General's ruling in its filing.

The police department contends that DPPA requires redaction or blacking out of identifying information -- names, address, dates of birth and DL numbers -- before records are released if that information came from motor vehicle records maintained by the DOT.

Kristina Williamson, representing the city in the matter, said the department stands by its decision to restrict the release of identifying information.

"While I sympathize with the position of the newspaper, we are taking the position which we believe we are required to take, according to the current state of the law," Williamson said.

In early January, the News requested several accident and incident reports from NRPD. Police Chief Mark Samelstad released the reports about 10 days later with names, addresses and dates of birth blacked out.

Previous to mid-December, such information was routinely provided to the newspaper immediately or once a police investigation had been completed.

"Although Chief Samelstad has been candid in talks about our disagreement and fairly swift to respond to our inquiries about one case or another, it's impractical for a reporter to have to wait 10 days to get basic details about an injury accident that might have occurred midday on Knowles Avenue or burglaries which might have happened over a weekend," said New Richmond News Publisher Steve Dzubay. "That's just not the way the Open Records law was intended to be applied. Citizens have a right to know what's happening in their community when it involves tax dollars and public employees."

Media in several other parts of Wisconsin began experiencing similar black-outs following release of a memo by the Wisconsin League of Municipalities warning that cities could be at risk for lawsuits and paying damages if they didn't limit public access to certain data.

Police in Hudson and Kenosha also began limiting the release of information, pending clarification of the Illinois ruling. Meanwhile, open records policies at nearby Somerset and River Falls police departments are relatively unchanged.

Under Wisconsin's Open Record Law, it is the declared public policy that every citizen is entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government, wrote Robert Dreps, the attorney representing the News.

The statute affirms the presumption of complete public access to governmental records, consistent with government business, and provides that the "denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied," Dreps wrote, quoting the statute, then adding -- "This is not an exceptional case."

Dreps said departments across the state have interpreted the federal ruling different and applied restrictions in varying degrees. He said New Richmond is the only police department he knows of that has gone to the extent of redacting the person's name from every report.

Dreps said he understands how communities can be skittish about releasing information that could result in a legal trouble, but media outlets have a valid argument about public records.

"It's just a difference of opinion," Dreps said.

In the federal case -- Senne vs. Village of Palatine -- a man who received a $20 parking ticket in the Illinois city filed a class action lawsuit against the village in federal court, claiming violation of privacy in that his name, address, date of birth, height, weight and driver's license number were placed on the ticket in plain view on his windshield. A court panel affirmed the district court's dismissal of the case. But upon appeal to the entire court, a panel whose jurisdiction extends to Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, his right to pursue the claim was upheld and the case was sent back for trial.

Some attorneys soon suggested that municipalities, community colleges and other governmental entities that issue parking tickets should immediately review their practices to ensure that they comply with the court's decision.

The court first found that placing the parking ticket on Senne's windshield constituted a "disclosure" under the Act because any passerby could have viewed the ticket, even though there were no facts to suggest that anyone had actually done so during the five hours before the owner removed it from the windshield.

Palatine's petition for review of that ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is awaiting decision.