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High court orders release of 'dangerous intersection' data

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW YORK   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 13, 2005

High court orders release of ‘dangerous intersection’ data

  • Federally mandated reports about New York’s most hazardous intersections must be released to a newspaper under the state open records law even though a federal law prohibits their use as evidence in court proceedings, the state high court ruled.

June 13, 2005  ·   A New York newspaper has won the right to see information about the state’s most hazardous intersections, the New York Court of Appeals ruled Thursday, rejecting an argument that the data’s release is forbidden by a federal law preventing the same information from being used as evidence in court proceedings.

Writing for the state’s highest court, Justice Robert Smith said he understood the state Department of Transportation’s concern that a personal-injury plaintiff might try to subvert the trial-evidence ban by substituting an open records request for a discovery request. However, the law’s language fails to establish an exemption from the state’s open records act, Smith ruled.

Smith also stressed that Newsday‘s goal in accessing the information did not implicate the contested law’s concern: “No one disputes that Newsday’s purpose in making its [open records] request was simply to gather news,” not to build a legal case against the state.

The reports — in which New York identifies its most dangerous intersections — were written by the state for the federal highway Hazard Elimination Program, which requires the information before it disperses highway improvement funds.

When Newsday first requested access to the reports in December 2002, the state Transportation Department refused to release them, citing the federal trial-evidence law, which was passed by Congress to encourage the study and improvement of potential accident sites by assuaging states’ fears that the lists would be used against them in lawsuits filed by car-accident victims.

A state trial court and an intermediate appellate court agreed with Newsday that the trial-evidence prohibition is not an exemption to the New York open records law.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Kansas decided the same issue, ruling that the federal ban on using the reports as trial evidence “contains no prohibitions against disclosure upon a request by a newspaper reporter.”

The Alabama and Tennessee Supreme Courts ruled in 1999 and 1995, respectively, that the federal law did suffice as an exemption to their state open records laws. Smith noted in his opinion, however, that the requests in those cases were made on behalf of tort plaintiffs.

(Newsday v. State Dep’t of Transportation; Media Counsel: Stephanie S. Abrutyn; New York, N.Y.)RL

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