Free access worth price

Files: Opening public records has risks, but the payoff is an open society and accountable government

January 10, 1999|By Rosemary Armao

THE STORY the family always told about Uncle Carm, Grandma's charming but devilish younger brother, was that at 18 he and five friends had "borrowed" a car and got caught driving it in New York City before they had a chance to return it.

Recently, my mother, a tireless family historian, recruited me to help her learn more about Uncle Carm. We ended up in the New York State Archives, flipping through 70-year-old admission records from the Elmira Reformatory. We found the entry, including a photo of an impossibly young Uncle Carm. We also tracked down old newspaper clippings -- teen-agers borrowing cars was front-page news in the 1920s -- as well as police and court records.

We got, in short, the whole story. My mother would kill me if I printed it here.

I tell this anecdote because Uncle Carm epitomizes for me the power, the great value, of the open records that our society decrees we have the right to see. But his story also represents the desire of some people to keep records secret. We want to know more, but it can be embarrassing.

We journalists -- who get paid to find out more -- have not fully understood this balance and thus have done a poor job making a case for open meetings and records.

Not long ago, I took a class of journalism students in Missouri to a county recorder's office to show them how to find out about property transactions.

"You can tell how much people paid for their house?" one shocked student exclaimed. "Is that right?"

Better than just "right." The deeds and record books in that county office ensure that sellers are selling property they really own, at prices comparable to others in the area. These documents can help you find out if a neighbor is paying taxes on an assessment that's much lower than yours. The price for that protection is that anyone can find out how much you paid for your house.

Another former student recently sent me a tape of a news broadcast she was involved in and was proud of. For her story, she went to a shopping mall and got three shoppers to give her their names. She then found out everything she could about them from public records: addresses, neighbors' names, phone numbers, political party affiliations and campaign contributions, lawsuits they had been party to, police records, employment histories, property holdings and debt. The people in the mall were shocked, and I'm sure viewers were, too.

In this country, your enemies could build a dossier on you. But this broadcaster never told the flip side: Through public records, long-lost friends, or doctors stitching up your kids in the emergency room, can find you. Voter fraud is detectable. Politicians with hidden agendas are usually found out.

Access to motor-vehicle and driver records is being restricted across the country, including in Maryland, where drivers may specify that they want private information such as addresses kept private. Some 928,500 of the state's 3.4 million drivers have done so, believing they are protecting themselves. Some legislators would like to make all such records private.

Misguided intention

They should know that a good but misguided intention is behind the shutdown of motor-vehicle information. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, introduced the 1994 federal legislation that caused the shutdown, prompted by the 1989 murder of TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was tracked by a stalker and shot in the head at her home.

But stalkers stalk; they don't need license-plate numbers. In the Schaeffer case, Robert Bardo, who was convicted as her killer, hired a private detective to get her address. Ironically, while the law that commemorates her death prevents the public and journalists from getting motor-vehicle information, it remains open to police, insurers, lenders seeking to recover a debt -- and licensed private eyes.

Another irony: According to a study by Denver college students several years ago, the information on motor-vehicle records closed in Colorado was nearly all obtainable from other, public sources.

So, for the sake of a questionable privacy, we are giving up the protection that open, motor-vehicle records provided. Want to know if the bus driver who picks up your first-grader is a good driver? That's private. The same goes for ambulance drivers and taxi drivers. Are we sure that drunk drivers are being quickly removed from the road, as required by law? When police get into accidents, are they treated the same as regular citizens? That information is off limits.

Privacy Hysteria

The death of Princess Diana, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, stalkers, aggressive marketers and heightened awareness of how computers make public record-searching so easy have touched off what a newspaper friend of mine calls Privacy Hysteria.

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