Redacting Police Reports

A common question for many police departments is, “What information must be provided under a public (open) record request?” The Federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act (FDPPA) prohibits the release of personal information gained from a state’s motor vehicle department, with some exceptions. But interpreting those exceptions has led to a lot of uncertainty and conflicting practices, where some police departments release more or less information than others. Recently, the St. Croix County Circuit Court attempted to provide some clarity to this question. In New Richmond News v. The City of New Richmond, the newspaper requested accident reports from the City’s police department. The City turned over its reports, but redacted personal information about the parties in the report. The paper sued.

The City argued it was merely complying with the FDPPA by redacting any information it obtained from the Wisconsin motor vehicle report. However, the court held that, in Wisconsin, disclosing governmental affairs and the official acts of governmental officers and employees is an “essential function” of government, which is one of the exceptions to the FDPPA. The court stated that because of the value of governmental transparency and accountability in Wisconsin, police departments should be required to disclose their traffic reports upon public request.

The City has appealed the circuit court decision, so for the moment, uncertainty remains. If you receive a request for personal information which you have received from a department of motor vehicles, you should contact your municipal attorney for guidance.

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