Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fla. Daily Sues City Over Whether Traffic Tickets Are Public Records

Seal of the countyImage via WikipediaIn Times Publishing Co. v. City of Kenneth City (Case No. 10-17865), The St. Petersburg Times has petitioned the 6th Judicial District Circuit Court for Pinellas County for a writ of mandamus ordering the municipality to release records of red-light violators who received traffic citations from American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private company hired by the city to issue traffic tickets.

As reported by Courthouse News Service, the Times, which is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, filed a freedom of information request Dec. 1, pursuant to Florida's Public Records Act (Ch. 119, Fla. Stat.) and Art. 1, Sec. 24 of the Fla. Constitution (access to public records & meetings), seeking warning notices and citations issued by the city. Then-Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law in May 2010, H.B. 325, which empowers cities to use red-light cameras and other traffic infraction devices to issue citations to offending drivers.

Kenneth City hired ATS, which began issuing citations last November, one month after it started doling out warning citations. ATS, which produces a report for the city that identifies offenders, agreed only to provide the Times with statistics on the numbers of drivers it ticketed, contending that, as a private entity, the materials it kept were not public records.  The city, in turn, declined to produce the records naming the offenders, claiming that doing so would violate the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act [18 U.S.C. sec.2721 et seq.].

For its part, the Times argues that it has a legal and constitutional right to inspect the traffic records. Not that the Pinellas County Court has consulted us, but "TUOL" believes the newspaper's request should be green-lighted. Expect to see a spate of such lawsuits nationwide as municipalities continue to privatize governmental services such as trash collection and traffic enforcement.

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  1. When any entity subject to FOI requests and/or public disclosure sub contracts all or part of its operation(s) elsewhere, is it a legal principle that the attached FOI eligibility is also conveyed unless otherwise stipulated? I ask, since the city appears to be claiming exemption under a different provision, a Drivers Privacy Protection Act. And if there's a conflict of laws, which would prevail?

    This humble citizen agrees with you on the green-lighting. The increasing penchant for low-level institutional secrecy, bordering on paranoia at times, is very worrisome ... too much "us-against-them/muzzle-the-press".


  2. Donna: The answer to your straightforward question is more complicated than you might imagine, but I'll try to keep my lawyerliness in check. The Times' position is that the DPPA does not protect personal information pertaining to driving violations, and the Fla. Pub. Recs. Act does not exempt such data from being releases. To the extent DPPA might conflict with state law, the federal law trumps (or pre-empts as we lawyers are wont to say)it. The answer to your public entity/private subcontractor query is: "it depends." Among the FOIA exemptions are those involving personnel matters, trade secret & confidential commercial financial info, & info compiled for law enforcement purposes, all of which conceivably might involve a private entity. Hope I haven't left you completely befuddled with my clarification.

  3. Not befuddled at all, at least not by anything you've written. You have a rare ability to distill and convey complex issues and principles, and you do it with grace and wit. I never made it to law school as I'd wished, but I've never lost my interest in law and journalism and how they impact society. I'm grateful to you for continually educating me on both.

    On this Florida disclosure issue, it seems reasonable that the category of "info compiled for law enforcement purposes" could apply. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.