Last Friday, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled — in what we consider a bad decision — that the names of car owners ticketed by automated speed cameras are not a public record.
The split decision came as the state’s top court ruled on a lawsuit filed by a former Ottumwa police sergeant who was ticketed while driving a city-owned car in May 2016 by the city’s speed camera. Typically such citations are issued to the vehicle’s registered owner based on the camera’s image of the vehicle’s license plate.
Mark Milligan, the former officer, filed an open records request after he was given the ticket as the driver. In his open records request, Milligan wanted to see the names of car owners caught on camera and ticketed as well as those caught speeding by the automated camera but not given a ticket.
The Associated Press reported that many cities do not enforce the automated fines against public officials driving government vehicles. In light of that practice, Milligan’s request clearly seems reasonable.
The city denied his request arguing that the names of people ticketed are confidential under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act passed in 1994 and a similar state law designed to protect personal records maintained by state transportation officials. The laws were passed to prevent stalkers and other criminals from having access to names and addresses of citizens from driver’s license and car registration records.
However, the state and federal laws have exceptions, including information on accidents and driving violations.
Acting on the officer’s open records request, a district court judge concluded the speeding tickets fell under the exemption for driving violations and ordered the city to release the names Milligan requested.
The city of Ottumwa appealed the district judge’s decision.
Four Iowa Supreme Court justices concluded Friday that the names should not be released. The majority opinion written by Edward Mansfield said speed camera citations are not driving violations. They are city citations that do not go through the courts.
Mansfield acknowledges that court cases are open to the public and will continue to be. However, he said this case is different because it involves personal information that is not filed in court and therefore cannot be released by a government entity.
He said if the court adopted Milligan’s arguments, law enforcement agencies in Iowa could be required under the Open Records Act to disclose the names of people issued warnings but never issued a traffic ticket. It could also require release of a license plate number associated with car owners, Mansfield said.
“These things would surprise many Iowans, we think. A mass production of license-plate-and-name combinations could be used to facilitate stalking — exactly the situation the DPPA was enacted to prevent,” he wrote.
Chief Justice David Wiggins and Justice Brent Appel disagreed. Wiggins wrote in a dissenting opinion that he would order the names released.
“Disclosure is allowed because the city is exercising a lawful function under its ordinances when it issues a notice of violation to a person accused of or under investigation for failing to obey a speed limit,” he said.
Milligan only sought names of individuals not license plate numbers or addresses, Wiggins said. The release of the limited information Milligan requested would not be contrary to the purpose of the laws, he said.
We agree with Wiggins and Appel. While the officer should not be given a “pass” on the citation if he was responding to an emergency, we view Milligan’s request as a reasonable effort to determine if an existing Ottumwa ordinance was being enforced fairly.
While there is no evidence to suggest that officials in Ottumwa are doing anything wrong, the Supreme Court decision closed the door on the public’s ability to determine that through a review of the city’s actions. Names of violators — but not license plate numbers — should have been made available.
The Iowa Supreme Court decision closed the door on an important component of meaningful checks and balances.