- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

MILWAUKEE (AP) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering whether some common public records like traffic accident reports and tickets should be off-limits to journalists in a case that could affect the state’s long-standing open records law.

Stories such as former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager’s 2004 drunken driving arrest, or other violations involving prominent drivers, might never get reported without access to the names and addresses in such records, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Saturday (http://bit.ly/1QpHObl ).

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Friday in a lawsuit by the New Richmond News, which sued the city of New Richmond because its police department routinely blacked out names and other information from reports that the paper requested. The city cited the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

At issue is whether the DPPA trumps Wisconsin’s open records law. Last year, a St. Croix County judge ruled in favor of the newspaper.

Congress passed the federal law in 1994 after a stalker got an actress’ home address through motor vehicle records, then killed her. The DPPA restricts use of personal information obtained from motor vehicle departments, but lists several permissible uses, though none specifically for news reporting.

No one expected it would undo states’ open records laws. But an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit under the DPPA by an Illinois man who said his personal information was on a parking ticket left by police on his windshield struck fear at the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and its self-insurance company. They advised clients to err on the side of censorship. If something as innocuous as a parking ticket could violate the DPPA, they worried, any number of police records could.

So law enforcement agencies all over Wisconsin began blacking out names, addresses and ages of people in even the most routine traffic accident reports, and in other records if the information was obtained from or confirmed by driver’s license and motor vehicle records.

They did so even though in 2008, then-Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen expressly said that the DPPA did not require such redactions.

Last year, St. Croix County Circuit Judge Howard Cameron ruled for the New Richmond News, citing two exceptions in the federal law that he said clearly allow Wisconsin agencies to release public records under state law. One of the permissible uses under DPPA is by a government agency “while carrying out its functions.” Complying with state public records law is one of the New Richmond police department’s functions, Cameron said.

The city appealed directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to “definitively resolve this growing statewide controversy.”

Arguing for the newspaper, attorney Robert Dreps said Congress could have pre-empted states’ public record laws with the DPPA, but would have had to make it extremely clear that it was doing so, and did not. He also said no other state has taken the restrictive approach favored by Wisconsin municipalities.

New Richmond’s attorney, Remzy Bitar, said that if the newspaper’s view was correct, the exception for state law would “swallow the entire DPPA.”

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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