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D.C. red-light camera records ruled private

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 20, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 20, 2005

D.C. red-light camera records ruled private

  • An appeals court refused to give an attorney addresses of drivers who got tickets from an arguably faulty traffic camera, ending a two-year battle to obtain the records.

Dec. 20, 2005  ·   Records of tickets issued to motorists caught by traffic cameras in Washington, D.C., will not be made public after District of Columbia courts twice dismissed a lawsuit to release the data.

Two Washington courts upheld the District’s refusal to release the records, ruling that city officials were correct in citing the privacy interest of the drivers under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act and the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act of 1994. In rejecting Washington attorney Daniel Wemhoff’s 2003 request for the addresses of drivers caught on camera running a red light, the city noted that even if those exemptions to the law did not apply, the information was not searchable in the District’s database.

In 2003, Washingtonians learned that a camera installed on a traffic light at a confusing Northeast D.C. intersection was citing more violators than all of the city’s other traffic cameras combined — sometimes improperly. Wemhoff attempted to organize a class of affected citizens to sue the city for negligence and for discriminating by forgiving unpaid tickets at the time of the discovery while not providing similar measures for drivers who had already paid tickets, some of which may have been issued improperly.

When he was not able to track down affected motorists on his own, Wemhoff requested under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act addresses of people who had received tickets from that particular camera. The District and the D.C. Superior Court, in rejecting Wemhoff’s request, both failed to address the public’s interest in that information, he said.

“The public interest is for the people who need to know they have a legal cause of action. It is only a slight invasion of privacy — a letter to a motorist. These people have the right to opt out of the lawsuit, but they also have the right to opt in,” said Wemhoff, who represented himself in the December 2003 lawsuit.

Wemhoff openly noted to the trial court that he had requested the records in conjunction with a separate class action lawsuit he had filed against the District. Judge Frederick H. Weisberg dismissed the records request lawsuit, citing exemptions to the FOI Act and the DPPA. A three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the dismissal Dec. 15.

Focusing on Wemhoff’s purpose in requesting the records, Judge Inez S. Reid wrote for the court that in enacting the DPPA, “Congress did not intend that personal information in motor vehicle records would be used to contact persons to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit, nor that such information would be disclosed, without the consent of the affected person,” ultimately funding that “acquiring personal information from the motor vehicle records for the purpose of finding and soliciting clients for a lawsuit is not a ‘permissible use'” under the DPPA.

But as a fairly new law, the DPPA is still undergoing interpretation, Wemhoff said. “There is so little law on this, it is more of a statutory test to see what the courts can read into it,” he said. He noted that while Congress may have wanted to preclude harmful contact to drivers without their consent, in Wemhoff’s view, “Congress did not have the intent to ban beneficial contact.”

Wemhoff said he wants only the addresses, not the names, of motorists who received tickets at the light located on the H Street bridge near North Capitol Street. He intends to send one letter to the drivers explaining their legal right to sue, to which they can either respond and become involved, or, “if they do not want to be part of it, they can throw it away.” He said he plans to petition the entire appeals court for a rehearing.

(Wemhoff v. District of Columbia)CZ

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