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Wendy Reuer, Published July 05 2013

ND public records bill a compromise

FARGO – North Dakota legislators say a bill aimed at closing off information contained in North Dakota crash reports available to the public ultimately passed as a compromise.

Senate Bill 2310 was designed to limit the information in accident reports available to the public such as drivers’ addresses, birthdays and phone numbers.

While proponents of the bill argued that closing the door on that information protects the privacy of citizens, critics of the bill said it would have a stifling effect on public record laws, which mandate records remain open unless a specific law is passed to seal them.

In its final form, the legislation, which is now law, will withhold from the public the following data in crash reports:

• Driver’s license numbers.

• Telephone numbers.

• Insurance company names and policy numbers.

• Day and month of birth.

However, the drivers’ names and year of birthday will still be open to the public.

Those involved in the accident, their insurance company or legal representative will have access to the full crash report.

Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney and lobbyist for the North Dakota Newspaper Association said it was important to keep the information open, calling the bill a slippery slope to murky government transparency.

Rep. Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, vice chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the bill was written to curb identity theft and breaches of privacy by using crash report data.

“It does lock down personal information. It takes the state out of the business of selling personal information,” Owens said.

The legislator said that the law also prevents potential predators or stalkers from tracking down a victim’s address by using a crash report.

“I argued unsuccessfully this information is available all over the place,” McDonald said. “There was no information that anyone ever used these reports for identity theft or loss of privacy at all.”

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said the bill was not an effort to circumvent any open records laws. Instead, it was meant to protect citizens.

The final bill passed 59 to 33 in the House.

“It was definitely not a partisan bill because there were several Republicans that voted no,” Hawken said.

The original bill passed the Senate with only one vote, Kelley Armstrong, R-Dickinson, opposed.

Armstrong said he opposed the bill because he was concerned about the effect it could have on media members trying to get information about important crashes for a story.

McDonald said the information such as the full birthday or address of a driver in a crash report helps the media verify the identity of those involved.

“This helps us provide more accurate reports and make sure we weren’t making mistakes,” McDonald said. “The value to the public is getting more complete and accurate information.”

Owens said the final law still allows the media to glean enough pertinent information from the crash reports to remain accurate.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530