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State opinion: Woodbury police improperly withheld data

The Minnesota Department of Administration's Information Policy Analysis Division issued an opinion on how the Woodbury Police Department handled certain requests for law enforcement data from the Woodbury Bulletin.

Woodbury police improperly withheld public documents and failed to comply with laws governing the release of certain law enforcement data, a state commissioner concluded.

The police department did not provide public data contained in a number of initial complaint reports or ICRs that had been requested by the Woodbury Bulletin, and in other instances the department wrongly withheld entire reports that are public under state law, Minnesota Administration Commissioner Matthew Massman wrote.

Massman's conclusions were part of an advisory opinion issued April 19 by the state Administration Department's Information Policy Analysis Division. That office helps to interpret the Data Practices Act and issues opinions on governments' compliance with data practices and open meeting laws.

The Bulletin sought the opinion in February after questioning whether certain data was correctly withheld. The Bulletin also wanted clarification on when specific law enforcement data is public.

A key conclusion in the opinion was that the department cannot withhold an entire police report that may contain some private data. Certain law enforcement data contained on the requested reports always is public.

"The city should have provided redacted copies of the ICRs," Massman wrote.

The opinion also concluded:

• The department improperly withheld access to arrestees' name, age and last known address. State law says that information is public at all times.

• Police improperly withheld the full dates of birth for people involved in traffic accidents. That data is always public under state law. Dates of birth are used by media to determine correct ages when reporting.

• The department cannot withhold the date of birth of a defendant in a criminal complaint, a document outlining allegations in a criminal case, if the complaint has been presented in court.

The opinion also discussed when names, ages and phone numbers of individuals identified in law enforcement reports are public, as well as when addresses of incident locations, such as the home address of a residential fire call, must be released. There are instances when individuals' information can be withheld, but in other situations it's public data.

The commissioner also ruled that an initial complaint report report filed in order to conduct a background check on someone seeking a ride-along with a police officer is public, though certain data on the report itself may be classified as private. The city had withheld the entire report.

While the state opinion found that Woodbury PD wrongly withheld multiple types of public data, it also found that the police department correctly redacted other information that the law allows to be kept private during an active criminal investigation. That data included victims' and witnesses' dates of birth and phone numbers.

"We will continue to seek an appropriate balance between privacy protection within data practice law, conducting thorough police investigations and responding to the Bulletin's request for police reports," Woodbury police public information officer Michelle Okada said in a statement.

The statement also said: "We were working within an informal agreement with the Bulletin to share information and help them meet tight print deadlines. Unfortunately, sometimes this created situations of over redaction of information. We will continue to evaluate this agreement and our process with the Bulletin and make adjustments as needed."

The state opinion is nonbinding, but governments and the public look to these opinions for guidance when resolving data disputes, and they must be given deference by a court in a proceeding involving the data.

The type of data at issue in the Bulletin's opinion request is commonly requested by media of local law enforcement agencies throughout Minnesota.

The opinion's position that an initial complaint report is public and must be released, with private data redacted as appropriate, will have "very widespread impact," said Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Minnesota sometimes improperly withhold full initial complaint reports because they contain some data that cannot be released, or because the agency says the incident is under investigation.

The opinion cited state law that says certain law enforcement data always is public.

"It'll have a much broader application" than just how Woodbury handles its data, Anfinson said of the opinion. Attorneys that advise law enforcement agencies across the state will use the opinion as a teaching tool, he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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