Judge: Cops not required to include personal ‘private info’ on public crash reports to lawyers seeking clients

Lawyers who use police accident reports to find clients and drum up business can’t use state open records laws to force police departments to provide addresses and insurance policy numbers for people involved in traffic crashes, a Cook County judge has ruled.

On April 29, Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin U. Valderrama ruled in favor of the Schaumburg Police Department in its court fight against personal injury lawyer Anthony Mancini and his firm, the Mancini Law Group P.C., of Chicago.

“… The Court notes that the (Schaumburg) Department has not argued that the traffic accident reports are exempt under (the Freedom of Information Act),” Judge Valderrama wrote. “Rather, the Department’s position is that it may redact private information from traffic accident reports.

“The Court agrees with this interpretation and finds that the Department has satisfied its burden, by clear and convincing evidence, that it may redact ‘private information’ from the traffic accident reports.”

The dispute first landed in Cook County Circuit Court in the fall of 2017, when Mancini sued the village of Schaumburg’s police department. He accused the department of wrongly redacting information from two weeks’ worth of police crash reports he had requested.

The complaint said the village responded to his request two months earlier with a batch of crash reports, but the reports included “substantial redactions” – meaning much of the reports had been blacked out.

Mancini, through his lawyers with the firm of Loevy & Loevy, of Chicago, asserted those redactions violated Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, which, he argued, “explicitly requires public bodies to disclose traffic accident reports.”

Mancini noted other police departments provided accident reports without covering up names, addresses and other information for people involved in crashes.

Schaumburg Police responded by noting they only blacked out what could be classified under the law as “private information,” which they said was exempt under FOIA. This “private information” included home addresses, driver’s license numbers, personal phone numbers, birth dates, license plate numbers and insurance policy numbers.

“This is the type of information that a reasonable person would find highly objectionable if this information was released,” the police said in their briefs in reply to Mancini’s suit. “It is conceivable that the information could be used to make false reports or expose an individual to identity theft.”

The Schaumburg Police are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Klein Thorpe and Jenkins Ltd., of Chicago.

After the judge refused to dismiss Mancini’s lawsuit in the spring of 2018, Mancini and the Schaumburg Police each asked the judge to rule in their favor, requesting summary judgment on the question of the police department’s obligations under FOIA.

Mancini further argued the Illinois Vehicle Code required police to disclose the information withheld by the Schaumburg Police, as a section within the law required police agencies investigating crashes to “file a detailed report with the Department of Transportation and the Secretary of State.”

Judge Valderrama noted that section “further provides that the traffic accident reports and the information contained therein shall not be held confidential by the reporting law enforcement officer or agency.”

The judge, however, said he read that provision to mean the police agency cannot refuse “to provide the report or the information contained therein to the Department of Transportation or the Secretary of State on the basis of confidentiality.”

“The Court does not read it as a requirement that traffic accident reports or the private information contained therein must be disclosed under FOIA,” the judge wrote.

The judge further sided with Schaumburg Police, finding “the public interest in the disclosure” of the “private information” was “negligible at best, and disclosure would not advance the core purpose of FOIA, ‘to open governmental records to the light of public scrutiny.’”

Further, the judge rejected Mancini’s contention Schaumburg was required to provide unredacted, complete reports to him because the department also provides those reports to LexisNexis, an online database providing subscription and other paid access to legal documents and other sources. Motorists are typically able to acquire copies of their crash report through LexisNexis

The judge said those disclosures to LexisNexis were not made “voluntarily or selectively,” but rather “to comply with the Vehicle Code’s mandatory reporting requirements.”

This article was first published by Cook County Record.

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