Government

Automated speeding tickets not a public record

Iowa Supreme Court says names of car owners ticketed are private under federal law

Traffic approaches the automated traffic cameras over the Interstate 380 northbound lanes in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Supr
Traffic approaches the automated traffic cameras over the Interstate 380 northbound lanes in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday, ruling in an Ottumwa case, ruled the names of people ticketed by the cameras are not a public record. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The names of car owners ticketed by automated speed cameras are not a public record, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The court was considering 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.

Mark Milligan filed an open records request after he was given the ticket as the driver. Typically, such citations go to the vehicle’s owner.

Milligan wanted to see the names of car owners caught on camera and ticketed and those caught speeding by the automated camera but not given a ticket. Many cities do not enforce the automated fines against public officials driving government vehicles.

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.

The laws, however, have several exceptions, including information on accidents and driving violations.

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A district court judge concluded the speeding tickets fell under the exemption and ordered the city to release the names Milligan requested.

The city appealed.

Four justices concluded Friday that the names should not be released. The majority opinion, written by Justice Edward Mansfield, said speed camera citations are not driving violations. They are city citations that do not go through the courts.

Mansfield acknowledged 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 also could require release of a license plate number associated with car owners, Mansfield said.

“These things would surprise many Iowans, we think,” he wrote. “A mass production of license-plate-and-name combinations could be used to facilitate stalking — exactly the situation the (Driver’s Privacy Protection Act) was enacted to prevent.”

David Schrock, an attorney for the city of Ottumwa, said the decision is significant because it’s the first time a court has found automated traffic camera tickets have privacy protections under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

Dissenting opinion

Chief Justice David Wiggins and Justice Brent Appel disagreed.

“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,” Wiggins wrote in the dissenting opinion.

Milligan only sought names of individuals not license plate numbers or addresses, Wiggins said. The release of the limited information Milligan requested will not be contrary to the purpose of the laws, he said.

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Attorney George Davison Jr., who filed documents supporting release of the information on behalf of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the case shows how a broadly written federal law designed to protect private information can have the unintended consequence of dampening the public’s right to know.

“It seems to me to be one of those things that on the surface sounds good, but then when you try to apply it to real world situations it creates more problems that it solves,” he said.

Milligan’s attorney did not immediately respond to a message.

Cedar Rapids does not release names

The city of Cedar Rapids does not disclose the names of those receiving tickets from the city’s eight speed cameras and four red-light cameras, public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said Friday.

“Aggregate details” — that is, the number of tickets issued, their location and top speeds recorded — are available to the public and will be provided in a monthly report, he said.

“However,” he said, “personal information that identifies the individual, including the individual’s photograph, Social Security number, driver identification number, name, address, telephone number, and medical or disability information, is not disclosed.”

The Gazette contributed to this report.

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