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MADISON - Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issued an informal opinion today holding that a law enforcement agency responding to a public records request may release records containing personal information obtained by the law enforcement agency from motor vehicle records in the course of carrying out its agency functions.
The Attorney General's opinion was issued in response to a request from various newspapers and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Those media organizations had asked for the Attorney General's opinion regarding interaction between the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (the "DPPA"), 18 U.S.C. 2721-25, and the Wisconsin Public Records Law, Wis. Stat. 19.31-19.37, in the context of public records requests to law enforcement agencies.
The Attorney General's opinion reconciles applicable state and federal law. Under the Wisconsin Public Records Law, Van Hollen explained, it is "the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them." Complete public access is presumed, consistent with the conduct of government business. The DPPA, conversely, was enacted to limit the release of specified personal information contained in state motor vehicle recordslargely in response to concern about use of motor vehicle records by stalkers and other wrongdoers.
Van Hollen reasoned that the DPPA identifies certain permissible uses for which a state motor vehicle department (a "DMV") may disclose specified personal information from motor vehicle records. It is a permissible use for a DMV to disclose personal information "[f]or use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency in carrying out its functions . . .."
Van Hollen further reasoned that the Wisconsin Public Records Law imposes a statutory duty on law enforcement agencies to respond to public records requests. In the course of carrying out its functions, including responding to public records requests, a law enforcement agency therefore may disclose personal information obtained from a DMV that is included in law enforcement agency records responsive to such requests. Van Hollen also identified additional DPPA provisions supporting public records access to personal information in law enforcement records related to vehicular accidents, driving violations, and driver status.
Allowing a law enforcement agency responding to a public records request to disclose personal information obtained from the DMV and included in the law enforcement agency's records, Van Hollen explained, is not the same as requiring disclosure of that information. Other reasons may exist under the Public Records Law to redact some or all of the information in a particular record pursuant to the public records balancing test, a common law exception, or a specific statutory exception.
Historically, it has been the policy of Wisconsin Attorneys General not to issue opinions concerning applicability of federal statutes administered exclusively by federal authorities except in extraordinary circumstances. The United States Department of Justice enforces the DPPA, although a federal civil cause of action also is provided for persons whose personal information is obtained, disclosed, or used for a purpose not permitted under the DPPA. Because of his unique statutory role in construing the Public Records Law, however, Van Hollen issued his opinion on this subject of federal law in recognition of the need for guidance expressed by Wisconsin law enforcement agencies diligently attempting to comply with both the DPPA and the Wisconsin Public Records Law. Van Hollen also recognized the legitimate interests of the media in reporting matters of significant public concern and of the public in law enforcement matters implicating public safety and personal liberty.
Informal opinions of the Attorney General provide guidance about the meaning and application of Wisconsin law.
The request of the media organizations for an opinion and the Attorney General's informal opinion letter may be found here.