Sunshine Week: Basic accident information can be difficult to get from N.H. law enforcement

Monitor staff
Published: 3/15/2018 8:29:46 PM

Concord police responded to a routine rollover crash involving a 2002 Ford Explorer off Clinton Street earlier this month.

Lt. Sean Ford said the driver, John Robinson, 30, of Northfield, was not injured in the accident, which occurred about 7:30 p.m. on March 2.

Robinson was issued two motor vehicle summonses: one for a yellow-line violation and a second for using a mobile device while driving. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of negligent driving, for which he is scheduled to appear April 16 in Concord’s district court.

To date, the public knows less about a more serious crash that occurred several months earlier on Route 3A in Bow. Sgt. Art Merrigan said at the time that a 53-year-old Hillsboro man died and his 52-year-old passenger was taken to the hospital after the motorcycle they were riding collided with a car on the afternoon of Sept. 10.

The Monitor asked on more than one occasion for details from the fatal crash, but was provided with limited information. Merrigan said the department was reviewing what information it was allowed to release under the state’s Driver Privacy Act. The department never released the names of anyone involved, including the man who died and the driver of the car.

The two accidents underscore the disagreements that persist in New Hampshire about what information police departments are allowed to publicly release under state law and to whom.

Journalists have been able to inspect police accident reports for decades under the right-to-know law. However, in April 2017, the state’s Department of Safety began advising police chiefs that they could no longer facilitate the exchange of some information and that, instead, state motor vehicle officials were in the driver’s seat.

The Driver Privacy Act was originally enacted in 1994 to spell out what information state motor vehicle departments can disclose. But private attorneys and public information advocates say the Department of Safety’s message to police chiefs last year was not in sync with the law. One of the major sticking points: what government department – local police or the DMV – possess the public record.

Right-to-know attorney Greg Sullivan told the Monitor that traffic accident reports are generated by local police departments and not the DMV and, therefore, are public records held by police, not the state.

“My position all along has been that the Driver Privacy Act applies only to the records at the DMV, not at local police departments,” he said in an interview. “Law enforcement records can be withheld from the public, but only under limited circumstances.”

Sullivan called the misinterpretations of the law “a more recent thing,” noting that prior to the debate last year, police departments released accident information upon request as part of standard procedure.

Former Attorney General Peter Heed and ex-Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney assured departments in the years after the enactment of the Driver Privacy Act that they could release traffic accident reports to the public. But last year the attorney general’s office provided a new directive, cautioning police departments against releasing the reports.

While DMV officials met last year with state prosecutors and police officers in an effort to provide clarity, questions still linger.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Schlitzer said Thursday the state attorney general’s office did not realize that law enforcement officials were still grappling with what information they’re allowed to release under the law and the confusion was resulting in inconsistencies among departments. She said the office would certainly meet with police to provide further guidance.

Because each right-to-know request must be considered on a case-by-case basis, she said she could not quickly summarize how the attorney general’s office would advise a law enforcement agency to respond.

While the Legislature undertook efforts last year to provide clarity for police chiefs, amendments to existing laws did not specifically address media inquiries, but rather requests for information made by those involved in an accident. In those cases, people were most often seeking information for insurance purposes.

Tale of two municipalities

Records requests made by the Monitor to Bow and Concord show the extent to which confusion persists in two neighboring municipalities.

Even in cases where no charges are filed, Ford said, the police department will release a driver’s name, age and town of residence upon request. Officers will not discuss a person’s injuries, but they will say whether the driver and/or passengers were injured or taken by ambulance to the hospital. If a person dies in a crash, that individual’s name will be released once next of kin is notified, he said.

New Hampshire State Police have acted on a similar policy, regularly releasing the names and addresses of involved drivers, a brief description of the crash, road conditions and other routine information. They often do so in press releases, which are emailed to news outlets throughout the state.

But not all police departments are as forthcoming with the information. Some offer almost no details in describing a crash, including withholding drivers’ names.

The Monitor filed a right-to-know request in mid-January with Bow police for all records pertaining to the fatal crash on Route 3A. Bow police Chief Margaret Lougee responded that same day, saying the town manager’s office is the point of contact for all right-to-know requests. Administrative Assistant Tonia Lindquist then forwarded the Monitor a form to fill out without acknowledging receipt of the letter submitted hours earlier.

Eight days later, Town Manager David Stack emailed the Monitor to deny its records request. Stack said the records are exempt from disclosure under the Driver Privacy Act (RSA 260:14) and a state statute concerning conduct and reporting after a motor vehicle accident (RSA 264:25) without elaborating. Stack did not state any provisions under the law that would prevent disclosure of the records, and he did not cite any exemptions under the right-to-know law.

The Monitor continues to pursue the documents.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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