Law Enforcement Public Records:

1999 DOJ Seminar Notes for ALL citizens

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Wisconsin Statutes Sections 19.31 - 19.39

I. Public Policy.

Providing persons with information on the
affairs of government is "an essential
function of a representative government
and an integral part of the routine
duties of officers and employees
whose responsibility it is to
provide such information.

To that end, Sections 19.32 to 19.37 shall
be construed in every instance with a
presumption of complete public access,
consistent with the conduct of
governmental business

The denial of public access generally is
contrary to the public interest, and
only in an exceptional case may access
be denied." Wis. Stat. Section 19.31.

II. Record - Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2).

A.   Anything recorded or preserved
     that has been created or is
     being kept by the agency.

     This includes tapes, films, charts,
     photographs, computer printouts, etc.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2).

B.   Exceptions:

1.   Drafts and preliminary documents.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2).

     77 Op. Att'y Gen. 100 (1988), has
     limited this exception to documents
     that are circulated within the
     preparer's level of authority; this
     exclusion will be narrowly construed;
     the burden of proof is on the custodian.

     Fox v. Bock,
     149 Wis. 2d 403, 411, 417,
     438 N.W.2d 589 (1989)

     Journal/Sentinel v. Shorewood Schools
     186 Wis. 2d 443,
     521 N.W.2d 165 (Ct. App. 1994)

     Document not a draft if it is used
     for the purposes for which
     it was commissioned.

2.   Published material available
     for sale or at the library.

3.   Purely personal property;

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2).

4.   Material with access limited due
     to copyright, patent or bequest;

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2)

III. Requester - Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(3).

A.   Any person except a committed person or
     a person incarcerated in a state prison,
     county jail, county house of correction
     or other state, county or municipal
     correctional detention facility.

     They may only get their own records
     or records of their children

     1995 Wisconsin Act 158.
     1997 Wisconsin Act 94.

IV.  Request.

A.   Requests do not have to be in writing
     and the requester does not have
     to identify him/herself.

     The requester need not state
     the purpose of the request

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)(h) and (i).

B.   The request must be reasonably specific
     for subject matter and length
     of time involved

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)(h).

     Schopper v. Gehring,
     210 Wis. 2d 208,
     565 N.W.2d 187 (Ct. App. 1997).

V.   Responding to the Request

A.   Must designate a legal custodian and
     post information on obtaining records

     Wis. Stat. Sections 19.33 and 19.34

     If a custodian is not designated, the
     highest ranking officer and chief
     administrative officer are
     the legal custodians.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.33(4).

B.   The agency is not required to create a
     new record by extracting and compiling
     information from existing records
     in a new format

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)

     George v. Record Custodian,
     169 Wis. 2d 573, 579,
     485 N.W.2d 460 (Ct. App. 1992).

C.   Must respond

     " as soon as practicable
       and without delay. "

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(4)(a).

     DOJ policy is that a reply should
     be given within 10 business days.

D.   If the request is in writing, a denial
     of access must also be in writing

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(4)(b).

E.   A denial of a written request must
     inform the requester that the denial is
     subject to review in an action for
     mandamus under Wis. Stat. Section
     19.37(1) or by application to
     the DA or AG.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(4)(b).

F.   Must provide a copy if requested

     Coalition for
     Clean Government v. Larsen,
     166 Wis. 2d 159,
     479 N.W.2d 576 (Ct. App. 1991)
     is no longer good law.

     State ex rel. Borzych v. Paluszcyk,
     201 Wis. 2d 523,
     549 N.W.2d 253 (Ct. App. 1996).

G.   If record doesn't exist,
     inform the requester

     State ex rel. Zinngrabe v.
     School Dist. of Sevastopol,
     146 Wis. 2d 629,
     431 N.W.2d 734 (Ct. App. 1988).

H.   An arbitrary and capricious delay or
     denial exposes the custodian to punitive
     damages and a $1,000 forfeiture

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.37.

I.   Requests for records should
     be given high priority.

J.   Motives of the requester
     are not a factor.

VI.  Analysis of Request.

A.   Is there such a document?

B.   Usual situation when document exists

1.   Presumption in favor of access.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.31;

     State ex rel. Youmans v. Owens,
     28 Wis. 2d 672, 683,
     137 N.W.2d 470 (1965),
     139 N.W.2d 241 (1966).

2.   Exceptions.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.36;

     Hathaway v. Green Bay School Dist.,
     116 Wis. 2d 388, 397,
     342 N.W.2d 682 (1984).

     a.   State or federal law according

          Wis. Stat. Sections 19.35(1)(a)
          and 19.36(1). E.g., patient
          health care records.

          Wis. Stat. Section 146.82

          There are many statutes requiring
          confidentiality. Check the index to
          Wisconsin Statutes under both
          "Public Records" and specific
          subject, e.g., "veterinarians."
          Wis. Stat. Section 453.075.

     b.   Common law limitation.

          Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)(a)


          State ex rel. Richards v. Foust,
          165 Wis. 2d 429,
          477 N.W.2d 608 (1991)

          (common law provides exception
           to access to district
           attorney's files)

          State ex rel. Young v. Shaw,
          165 Wis. 2d 276,
          477 N.W.2d 340 (Ct. App. 1991)

          ( criminal defendant has no right
            of discovery under common law ).

     c.   Balancing test.

          Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)(a)

          State ex rel.
          Journal Co. v. County Court,
          43 Wis. 2d 297, 305,
          168 N.W.2d 836 (1969).

VII. Applying the Law to Law
     Enforcement Records.

A.   Investigative records.

1.   There is no automatic exemption for
     records of an ongoing criminal

     Journal/Sentinel, Inc. v. Aagerup,
     145 Wis. 2d 818,
     429 N.W.2d 772 (Ct. App. 1988);

     Milwaukee Journal v. Call,
     153 Wis. 2d 313,
     450 N.W.2d 515 (Ct. App. 1989)

     Such records may implicate an overriding
     public interest in preserving secrecy,
     but the custodian must articulate why
     release of the particular records would
     prejudice the investigation

     E.g., release of information
     only known to the criminal.

2.   District attorney prosecution files are
     exempt from the public records law

     State ex rel. Richards v. Foust,
     165 Wis. 2d 429,
     477 N.W.2d 608 (1991)

     In State ex rel. Downing v. Middleton
     Police Dept., unpublished Ct. App.
     November 3, 1994, the court held that
     the Foust exemption covered records
     retained by police departments.

     Unpublished decisions cannot be
     cited in court as precedent.

     Only documents integral to the criminal
     investigation and prosecution are
     covered by Foust.

     Nichols v. Bennett,
     199 Wis. 2d 268,
     544 N.W.2d 428 (1996).

3.   A defendantÆs right of access arises
     under Wis. Stat. Section 971.23,
     not the public records law.

     Matter of State ex rel.
     Lynch v. County Court,
     82 Wis. 2d 454,
     262 N.W.2d 773 (1978).

     But, if a statute provides a right to a
     record, the defendant has the same right
     of access as the general public

     State ex rel. Young v. Shaw,
     165 Wis. 2d 276,
     477 N.W.2d 340 (Ct. App. 1991).

4.   The usual presumption of access to
     records is reversed for records that
     contain information about law
     enforcement informants.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.36(8)
     (the Monfils law) (copy attached).

5.   Arrest records, except in extraordinary
     circumstances, are public.

     Newspapers, Inc. v. Breier,
     89 Wis. 2d 417,
     279 N.W.2d 179 (1979).

6.   The custodian is not only the custodian
     of his or her records but also of
     records gathered from other authorities.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(2).

     "Record" includes records created
     or kept by an authority.

     Beckon v. Emery,
     36 Wis. 2d 510,
     153 N.W.2d 501 (1967)

     But check with other agencies before
     you release their records.

B.   Personnel records.

1.   Earlier cases held that access can be
     denied to police personnel files.

     Village of Butler v. Cohen,
     163 Wis. 2d 819,
     472 N.W.2d 579 (Ct. App. 1991);

     Pangmann & Associates v. Zellmer,
     163 Wis. 2d 1070,
     473 N.W.2d 538 (Ct. App. 1991)

     But the supreme court held in

     Woznicki v. Erickson,
     202 Wis. 2d 178,
     549 N.W.2d 699 (1996)

     that there was no exception to the
     public records law for personnel
     records of public employees.

2.   The court ordered release of an
     investigation of alleged misconduct
     on the part of members of the
     Waukesha Police Department in

     Youmans, 28 Wis. 2d 67.

     The court held that the fact that
     release might damage reputations
     was not sufficient to deny release.

     The court required "a balancing of the
     interests of the public to be informed
     on public matters against the harm to
     reputations which would likely result
     from permitting inspections.

     The court emphasized that access could
     be denied only if release would "unduly"
     damage reputations.

3.   Even if personnel files of officers
     are confidential, records concerning
     complaints about the chief of
     police are not.

     State ex rel. Bilder v. Delavan Tp.,
     112 Wis. 2d 539,
     334 N.W.2d 252 (1983)

     See also
     Wisconsin Newspress v.
     Sheboygan Falls School District
     199 Wis. 2d 768,
     546 N.W.2d 143 (1996);

     Wis. State Journal v. UW-Platteville,
     160 Wis. 2d 31,
     465 N.W.2d 266 (Ct. App. 1990).

4.   Factual information gathered in
     connection with an investigation
     of police conduct is generally
     open to public inspection.

     Reports summarizing or detailing
     discharges of weapons or other use]
     of deadly force must be released

     State ex rel.
     Journal/Sentinel, Inc. v. Arreola,
     207 Wis. 2d 496,
     558 N.W.2d 670 (Ct. App. 1996).

5.   Officers' home addresses, supervisory
     conclusions, recommendations or other
     comments regarding disciplinary
     action may be redacted from
     records before disclosure.


C.   Juvenile records.

1.   Wis. Stat. Sections 48.396 and
     938.396 are not identical.

     "Child" means a person who is less than
     18 years of age except for purposes of
     investigating or prosecuting alleged
     violations of criminal law, civil
     law or municipal ordinance.

     Then "child" or "juvenile" does
     not include a person who has
     attained 17 years of age.

     There are many more exceptions to
     the confidentiality rule in
     Wis. Statutes Chapter 938.

     If denied access under either Wis. Stat.
     Section 48.396 or 938.396, the remedy
     is not the public records law.

     Wis. Stat. Sections 48.396(5)
     and 938.396(5).

D.   Medical records.

     Wis. Stat. Section 146.82.

1.   Wis. Stat. Section 146.82(2) determines
     who can have access to patient health
     care records without informed consent.

     Under Wis. Stat. Section 146.82(2)(a)15
     sheriffs, police departments or district
     attorneys may obtain patient health care
     records for purposes of investigation of
     deaths reported under certain statutes.

     Otherwise access must be by lawful
     order of a court of record.

2.   Ambulance records.

     Wis. Stat. Section 146.50(12)

     Information identifying the ambulance
     service provider, emergency medical
     technicians involved, date of the call,
     dispatch and response times of the
     ambulance, reason for the dispatch,
     location to which the ambulance was
     dispatched, destination, if any, to
     which the patient was transported by
     ambulance, the name, age and gender
     of the patient are public records
     if the ambulance service provider
     is an authority as defined in
     Wis. Stat. Section 19.32(1).

     The information may not contain details
     of the medical history, condition or
     emergency treatment of any patient

     78 Op. Att'y Gen. 71 (1989).

VIII.     The Response.

A.   Reasons for denial must be
     specific and sufficient.

1.   Don't state a mere conclusion,
     be specific.

2.   The need to restrict access must
     still exist at the time the
     request is made for the record.

     Wis. State Journal v. UW-Platteville,
     160 Wis. 2d at 38;

     Oshkosh Northwestern Co. v.
     Oshkosh Library Bd.,
     125 Wis. 2d 480, 485,
     373 N.W.2d 459 (Ct. App. 1985)

     Reason to close a meeting under Wis.
     Stat. Section 19.85 not sufficient
     reason itself to deny access to
     a record from the meeting later.

3.   Even if the record falls within an
     exemption category, the custodian must
     make a specific demonstration justifying
     restriction on access.

4.   The purpose of the specificity
     requirement is to give adequate
     notice of the basis for denial
     and to ensure that the custodian
     has exercised judgment.

     Aagerup, 145 Wis. 2d at 824

     a.   For statement of the
          specificity test,


         Mayfair Chrysler v. Baldarotta,
          162 Wis. 2d 142.

     b.   For statement that specificity
          requirement is not met by mere
          citation to open meetings
          exemption statute,

          145 Wis. 2d at 823.

          But see

          State ex rel.
         Blum v. Board of Education,
          209 Wis. 2d 377,
          565 N.W.2d 140 (Ct. App. 1997)

          If confidentiality is guaranteed
          by statute, citation to statute
          is sufficient.

     c.   Court is not to conceive
          of reasons for denial.

         Oshkosh Northwestern Co.,
          125 Wis. 2d at 486.

          But see Blum,

          court not precluded from
          considering statutory exemption
          even if not cited by custodian.

5.   If part of the record is public
     information, then the public
     art must be disclosed.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.36(6).

6.   If you cannot think of good and specific
     reasons for denying access, the
     conclusion is simple.

     Turn it over.

     [This is one of the best ways to save
     time on public records requests.

     Honor the request and get on
     with your other work.]

IX.  Duty to Notify the Subjects of Records.

A.   If release of records involves
     reputational or privacy interests,
     prosecutor must notify subject
     of intent to release.

     Woznicki v. Erickson,
     202 Wis. 2d 178.

B.   Must allow reasonable time for
     subject of record to appeal
     decision to circuit court.

C.   Circuit court reviews prosecutor's
     decision de novo.

D.   Doctrine applies to all personnel
     records of public employees.

     Klein v. Wisconsin Resource Center,
     218 Wis. 2d 487;

     Teachers' Educ. Ass'n v.
     Board of Sch. Directors,
     Supreme Court No. 97-0308,
     decided July 8, 1999.

X.   Inspection, Copying and Fees.

A.   The requester is to be given facilities
     comparable to those used by employees.

     Wis. Stat Section 19.35(2).

B.   The requester is entitled to a copy
     of a record including copies of
     audiotapes and videotapes.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)

     There is a right to a copy of a
     computer tape, and a right to
     have the information on the tape
     printed out in a readable format.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(1)(e);

     75 Op. Att'y Gen. 133, 145 (1986).

C.   Copy fees are limited to the

        " actual, necessary and direct
          cost of reproduction. "

     Wis. Stat Section 19.35(3)(a)

     1.   The fee may also include the
          actual, necessary and direct
          cost of mailing or shipping.

          Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(3)(d).

     2.   Costs associated with locating
          records may not be charged
          unless they exceed $50.

          Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(3)(c).

3.   Costs of separating the confidential
     parts of records from the public parts
     must be borne by the agency.

     72 Op. Att'y Gen. 99 (1983).

4.   Photocopy fees should be around 15
     cents per page, and anything in excess
     of 25 cents is definitely suspect.

5.   May require prepayment of any fee
     if the total amount exceeds $5.00.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(3)(f)

     Can refuse to copy until
     payment is received.

     State ex rel Hill v. Zimmerman,
     196 Wis. 2d 419,
     538 N.W.2d 608 (Ct. App. 1995).

6.   May provide records for free
     or at reduced charge.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(3)(e).

XI.  Enforcement and Penalties.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.37.

A.   Mandamus

     1.   In camera proceedings,

          28 Wis. 2d at 682.

          169 Wis. 2d at 578, 582-83.

          196 Wis. 2d at 430.

          Judge reviews records before
          deciding whether they
          will be released.

     2.   Judge may allow attorney for
          the requester to see the
          contested records.

         Appleton Post-Crescent v. Janssen,
          149 Wis. 2d 294,
          441 N.W.2d 255 (Ct. App. 1989).

B.   Assertion of right to access encouraged.

     1.   Attorneys fees and damages
          of not less than $100.

          Wis. Stat. Section 19.37(2)

          For attorney fee award, there must
          be an attorney-client relationship.

         State ex rel. Young v. Shaw,
          165 Wis. 2d 276, 294-97,
          477 N.W.2d 340 (Ct. App. 1991)

          (no attorney fees for
          pro se attorney).

     2.   Discussing recovery of attorney
          fees where plaintiff "substantially
          prevails" and recovering fees and
          costs after the case is dismissed
          for being moot.

          Racine Ed. Ass'n v.
          Racine Bd. of Ed.,
          129 Wis. 2d 319,
          385 N.W.2d 510 (Ct. App. 1986),

         145 Wis. 2d 518,
          427 N.W.2d 414 (Ct. App. 1988).

     3.   No automatic damages if case
          arises under Wis. Stat.
          Section 19.37(1)(am).

C.   Punitive damages and civil forfeiture
     available if denial is arbitrary
     and capricious.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.37(3) and (4);
     165 Wis. 2d at 294 (punitive damages).

D.   May not destroy a record after receipt
     of a request for 60 days after
     denial or until case is done.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.35(5)

E.   Penalties also available
     for excessive fees.

     Wis. Stat. Section 19.37(3) and (4).

F.   Related criminal penalties.

     1.   Destruction or concealment
          of public records with
          intent to injure or defraud.

          Wis. Stat. Section 946.72.

     2.   Alteration of public records

          Wis. Stat. Section 943.38.

XII. Federal Freedom of Information Act
     5 U.S.C. Section 552
     does not apply to states.

     Federal and State FOI Resources

     196 Wis. 2d at 428. n.6.
DOJ file: misc\outline5  9/23/99


Sample request with timely congruent response



Wednesday 20 October 1999

Alan Lee,

Please send me the computer file representing Pages 1-9
of your seminar handout cited as misc/outline5 9/23/99.

An attachment to an E-Mail may be easiest. The file
can't be that large. Alternatively, the file
mailed to me on a disk is OK. 

A timely response would be appreciated.


Gerhardt Steinke  Voice: 608-222-7922
6415 Bridge Road    Fax: 608-222-7924
Madison WI 53713

DOJ answers timely same day:

Attached please find the outline that you requested.
If you have any questions please give me a call.
Thanks! <<outline5 - law enforcement.doc>> 

Connie Anderson
Government Operations and Administrative Law Unit
Department of Justice
(608) 266-3952


County Executive